Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Simplicity, originality and authenticity: the secret to Kurdish filmmaker’s success


LOS ANGELES—Although the only Kurdish filmmaker who’s ever been shortlisted twice for best live action short film at the prestigious Academy Awards, the 35-year-old Sahim Omar Kalifa is unpretentious and friendly. 
 

With a shy smile on his face, Kalifa talks to me on his iPad from his hotel room in Qatar where his film is screened in a festival. This is the second time this director’s work has been shortlisted for the Oscars Short Films award and he has only made three movies so far. 
 

The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selected Bad Hunter among 144 live-action shorts.
 

But Bad Hunter has already won several awards: The Jury Award for Best Short Film in Montreal, the Silver Spike in Valladolid, the Jury Prize in Dubai and the Special Jury Award at Australia’s Flickerfest. Los Angeles, London, New York and San Francisco screened the top ten movies in December.
 

The Belgium government and the Kurdish ministry of culture funded Bad Hunter, which was produced by Belgian production company A Private View. The film was shot in the scenic Zakho area (Iraq) and recorded in Kurdish. The film tells the story of the young man, Bahoz who does some hunting in the nearby valleys both as a pass-time and a way to feed his family. “Bahoz is not happy about hunting animals. He just can’t think of anything better to do. He is a young man who needs to grow up, to become an adult,” says Kalifa who wrote the screenplay with Belgian scriptwriter Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem.
 

One day this hunter finds an older man raping a young woman in a remote valley. The traumatized woman not only has to deal with the physical and psychological scars of her assault, she needs to make sure her family will never know what happened to her.
 

“Women in our society who become victims of rape are doubly victimized by their families.’ If they physically survive a rape, the women won’t know how to survive the anger of a family who will want to regain their lost honor.
 

But the woman of Bad Hunter finds an excellent solution to her problem. Her cleverness creates a twist to the story that surprises and pleases the audience.
 

In 2013, Kalifa directed Baghdad Messi, which was shortlisted for the Academy Awards last year and it won 60 awards. It is the story of a 10-year-old boy who is obsessed with football and star player Messi. He dreams about becoming a star and meeting his hero but the kid has lost a leg in the Iraq war, a misfortune that directly affects his ability to do what he loves the most. When the day the young boy has been anxiously expecting finally arrives -- watching the Champions League Finale Barcelona and Manchester United-- his television breaks down. This leads to a surprise. 

Baghdad Messi was another success that won numerous prizes and was invited for about 150 festivals. Land of the Heroes, Kalifa’s first film, was produced in 2011 and was also a festival darling. 
 

But Kalifa was not born into movie making and success. When he was a child in Zakho, taking photos and recording films was a luxury beyond the reach of the average person. “I had good parents and I was finally able to convince my father to buy me a camera that I could work with and make some money.”
 

When in 2001 Kalifa went to Belgium, he wasn’t sure what to do with his life. “I told a few people I knew that I liked films and they said I could try to get into a good film school in Brussels.” In 2008, Kalifa received his Master’s Degree from St-Lukas Film School but that was no guarantee for success for a lower-middle-class immigrant.
“I had no money to make films with but I was lucky enough that my graduation film NAN won a Wild Card competition from the Flemish Film Fund in Belgium. I wasn’t allowed to spend the award money on a car or a house and had to make another short film with that money.”
 

He says that he never predicted that any of his shorts would get this much attention, if any at all. “But this year I really hope, I can make it to the final nomination.
On January 14, the five nominees will be announced and on February 28 the award ceremony will be held.
 “My brothers are also trying to make films. People tell me you win awards because you live in Europe and have professional actors. But that’s not true.”
 

What the jury tends to say about Kalifa’s movie is praising his work for three qualities: his films are “simple, original, and authentic.” Writers and filmmakers know how difficult it is to create something simple. “Some Kurdish filmmakers tend to use heavy political and historical context. But it can work against you. I like to keep my work simple.”
 

Trying to say too much at once can be self-defeating for Kurdish writers and artists who are often overwhelmed by having to deal with too many untold stories of excessive suffering. Kalifa is currently developing his first feature-length subject ZAGROS with producer Dries Phlypo and writer Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem at A Private View. The story is set in Bakur (Turkish Kurdistan) and Brussels. 


He believes there are many gifted Kurds out there who should not be intimidated by obstacles and follow their passion. “Everything is digital and easy now. If you like to make a film, you have equipment at your fingertip.” He picks up his cellphone and holds it before the Skype camera.

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