Thursday, October 22, 2009

NYKFF ’09: Half Moon

Being is a Kurdish musician in Iran is not easy. At least the esteemed Mamo is still allowed to perform. However, the Islamist nation strictly prohibits women from singing in public. Yet, Mamo is determined to keep Kurdish musical traditions alive, even if his own time is short, in Bahman Ghobadi’s Half Moon, which screened last night during the inaugural New York Kurdish Film Festival.

With the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurds are now free to celebrate their music and culture. As a last hurrah, Mamo plans to attend an upcoming “cry of freedom” concert in Arbil, but getting there will be quite a trick, especially considering the old school musician will be bringing Hesho, a respected female vocalist, along with his ten musician sons.

Despite Mamo’s careful preparations and frequent greasing of palms, their journey results in one mishap after another, including the disastrous loss of Hesho and their instruments. However, a mysterious woman named Niwemang (Half Moon) appears (played by the luminous Iranian superstar Golshifteh Farahani), promising to delver Mamo to his final gig.

Moon was banned in Iran and it is not hard to see why. Scandalously, it shows platonic hugging between a man and woman—the sort of innocuous g-rated contact that is strictly forbidden by the Iranian authorities. Perhaps more threatening are Moon’s depictions of gender roles. Women are definitely seen singing, including not just Hesho, but also a fantastical city of 1,334 exiled women vocalists. More generally, aside from Mamo, Moon’s male characters are largely ineffectual, whereas women like Hesho and the possibly supernatural Niwemang are wiser, more humane, and often more powerful figures in Ghobadi’s film.

Evidently, the Iranian powers-that-be objected most strenuously to the film’s perceived advocacy of Kurdish independence. While clearly influenced by current events, Moon largely refrains from political statements. Yet, it is hard to escape the conclusion that even though violence remains prevalent in Iraq (especially near the border), it is now a freer environment for Kurds than the restrictive Iran.

In a style that feels someone akin to Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain, Ghobadi combines surreal magical realism with gritty naturalism, set against stunning natural vistas that dwarf the players in his absurd tragedy. Ismail Ghaffari strikes a similar balance as Mamo, expressing stately grace as well as the eccentricities of age in equal measure.

As the work of a Kurdish filmmaker with a truly international following, Moon was a logical selection for the NYKFF, even though it has already had a theatrical run. It is a demanding, but ultimately quit affecting film. The New York Kurdish Film Festival continues through Sunday (10/25) at NYU’s Kantor Film Center, with features, short programs, and a free screening of Yol, winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s 1982 Palme D’Or, on Saturday.