The Flowers of Kirkuk -- Film Review

A woman’s improbable adventure raises the veil on the horrors in Saddam’s Iraq.

ROME — A passionate if overwritten love story set against the background of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, "The Flowers of Kirkuk" tells the adventurous tale of a Western-educated Iraqi woman who follows her lover into the Kurdish genocide of the 1980s. As the film moves back and forth from thriller-style narrative to social realism, it presses so many politically correct buttons it’s bound to find admirers on the festival circuit and reap some excursions into theatrical release. In any case, it marks a step forward for Iranian-born Kurdish director Fariborz Kamkari, whose earlier films, "Black Tape" and "The Forbidden Chapter," were highly critical of Iran.

Lensed in Iraq in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan, this Swiss-Italian-Iraqi co-productionboasts a multi-national cast who speak Arabic with varying accents. Readers of subtitles will not notice the difference.

Story starts with Najla berating a scared driver as he manoeuvres his way around roadblocks to take her to provincial Iraq. She’s determined to find out what happened to Sherko (Turkish model-turned-actor Ertem Eser), her boyfriend from med school in Italy, who suddenly disappeared. She finds him in a Kurdish village doctoring the victims of chemical bombs, but her presence is dangerous for everyone. He sends her back to her family.

Najla’s wealthy relatives are firm Saddam supporters, but even they must tiptoe through politics in these difficult times. Horrified to find Najla making decisions on her own without asking a man’s permission, they try to arrange a marriage with the handsome, cultivated officer Mokhtar (fine Tunisian actor Mohamed Zouaoui), who falls for her on the spot. Torn between his admiration for her independence and his own deeply ingrained machismo and army discipline, he’s a much more complex guy than the dashing doctor Sherko and is given interesting characters twists till the end.

Naturally, Najla rejects him in favor of what her family disdainfully calls “the lice-ridden Kurdish terrorists.” When she and Sherko are rounded up in an army raid and taken to prison for torture, Kamkari gives a first taste of the atrocities against Iraq’s Kurdish population. Clearly he’s interested in exposing the full horrors of Saddam’s cruel Al Anfal campaign, including chemical bombs, the mass shootings of little boys and the sale of girls to the Gulf countries as human traffic.

These real-life horrors have to coexist with a lot of over-the-top storytelling. After Najla’s uncle buys her out of prison, she insists on returning to the bloodstained place as an army doctor with the secret plan of liberating her lover. As fearless as a Hollywood heroine, she falsifies medical records to save lives, even though helping the Kurds is punishable by death.

Moroccan actress Morjana Alaoui portrays Najla as a heroine courageous to the point of folly, with a bit of rich-girl foot-stomping thrown in. The image of a strong, self-willed Muslim woman is very appealing, though somewhat diluted by her single-minded motivation to be reunited with the man she loves. In the end, however, a broader humanitarian streak emerges, and few viewers will resist being moved by her final sacrifice in a heroic finale that recalls Italian post-war neo-realism.

Numerous Italian tech credits give the film an international, slightly depersonalized look. The multi-ethic, Rome-based Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio provides musical excitement that drives the emotional impact up a notch.

Production companies: Far Out Films, T&C Film, Oskar
Cast: Morjana Alaoui, Ertem Eser, Mohamed Zouaoui Mokhtar, Mohammed Bakri, Maryam Hassouni, Ashraf Hamdi, Falah Fleyeh, Shilan Rahmani, Sarkaw Gorany, Fehd Benchemsi
Director: Fariborz Kamkari
Screenwriters: Fariborz Kamkari, Naseh Kamkari
Producers: Fabrizia Falsetti, Marcel Hoehn, Dorotea Morlicchio, Francesca Morlicchio, Claudio Tesauro, Carlo Nizzo, Michelangelo Morlicchio, Giulia Fretta
Director of photography: Marco Carosi
Production designers: Malakdjahan Khazai, Sima Yazdanfar
Costumes: Malakdjahan Khazai, Simona Marra
Editor: Marco Spoletini
Sales Agent: Adriana Chiesa Enterprises
Unrated, 114 minutes

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