Friday, October 23, 2009

NYKFF ’09: Crossing the Dust

His name is legion—Saddam to be exact. The Ba’athist regime used to give financial remuneration to parents who named their sons after Saddam Hussein, but now being the dictator’s namesake has lost all its prestige. In fact, for one lost little boy it is a distinct disadvantage in Shawkat Amin Korki’s Crossing the Dust (trailer here), which screened last night during the New York Kurdish Film Festival.

It is 2003 and Saddam Hussein has just been toppled, in a very literal sense. Having just watched on television as the colossal Saddam statue was spontaneously pulled down by jubilant Iraqis, with an assist from an American tank, Azad and his fellow Kurdish Peshmerga fighters erupt into celebratory song and dance. Unfortunately, Iraq is still dangerous, especially for the Peshmerga, as Azad will soon be reminded.

While on a seemingly routine delivery mission with his gruff comrade Rashid, Azad notices a frightened Arabic boy crying by the side of the road. Taking mercy on young Saddam, Azad tries to find his parents, but communication with the Arabic speaking boy proves difficult. As scared and pathetic as this Saddam might be, Rashid remains unmoved, blaming the boy for diverting them from their mission and only providing the most minimal Kurdish translation for his colleague.

As the two men veer further off course, they witness a microcosm of the Iraq War, including lootings, Ba’ath loyalist guerilla attacks, and Saddam’s mass graves. Korki certainly did not calibrate his screenplay to cater to partisans either side of the Iraq controversy. Yet, the vicious nature of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime becomes only too apparent during the course of the film. Indeed, Korki’s strongest sequence involves the visit to a newly discovered secret grave site, where Azad joins scores of other Iraqis looking for missing loved ones.

Though obviously produced on a shoestring, Korki makes a virtue of necessity, effectively capturing a documentary-like sense of post-invasion Iraq. He also elicits some impressively natural performances from his leads, Hossein Hasan and Adil Abdolrahman, who convincingly convey a complicated history shared by the two Peshmerga. While his novice child actor does alright, he never really stretches beyond looking scared and confused.

Dust readily invites comparison with Bahman Ghobadi’s Half Moon, another selection of the first NYKFF. Indeed, both chronicle Kurdish protagonists on ill-fated Iraqi road trips. While Dust also shares a similarly absurdist inclination, it is never nihilistic. Rather, it presents the boots-on-the-ground reality of Iraq through a highly moral prism. It also offers a wider perspective on the Kurdish people, featuring both Christian and Muslim Kurds as supporting characters. As a film that might challenge some preconceptions, Dust definitely deserves an audience.

The New York Kurdish Film Festival continues through Sunday (10/25) with screenings at NYU’s Kantor Film Center.