'A Flag Without a Country': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
The protagonists seem to be more successful than the film about them.

Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi directed this docu-fiction hybrid about two Kurds in Northern Iraq who teach children in a Syrian refugee camp.

The lives of an amateur pilot and plane-builder and an aspiring singer from Iraqi Kurdistan are contrasted in A Flag Without a Country, a docu-fiction hybrid from Iranian-Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi (Turtles Can Fly, No One Knows About Persian Cats). Though it gives a snapshot overview of urban life in contemporary northern Iraq, between the town and a nearby refugee camp, the film never quite hits its stride, with the day-to-day of the two protagonists artificially juxtaposed not only through editing but occasionally also in the physical world, as they just so happen to frequent the same places when the cameras are rolling. But because their stories never overlap in any meaningful way, the impact of the film, beyond its obvious, reportage-like worth, is muted. After premieres at Busan and Sundance, further festival bookings and some TV interest are assured, though more based on the strength of Ghobadi’s reputation than the merits of the actual film.

By far the more fascinating of the two protagonists is Nariman Anwar, a gentle, good-humored plane enthusiast who has to walk with crutches following a crash-and-burn accident that was reportedly caused by a boy on the runway he was trying to avoid. Anwar is from Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan (Southern Kurdistan for the Kurds), and hopes to resume his aviation classes there after the accident, though some of the parents of the students — all of middle-school age or younger — are, understandably, weary to send them back to study aviation with someone who barely survived a crash. Most of these early scenes have a very documentary-like feel, even if the film is very upfront about the fact A Flag Without a Country is a documentary-fiction hybrid, as it announces it is "scripted from the lives" of the protagonists from the get-go.

The second lead, Helan Abdullah, is originally from Kurdish Iran, like the director. After her family fled to Turkey and then finally settled in Finland, she came back to Kurdistan and now lives in Erbil, hoping to continue her musical career under the stage name Helly Luv. (Though never mentioned in the film, she was also the lead actress in 2014’s Mardan from Bahman’s younger brother Batin, credited as production designer and co-editor here.) Besides performing in a live show with an impressive conga line of back-up dancers in traditional garb (awkwardly captured by cinematographer Jafar Aslani from the side, since there’s a gigantic ornamental water-basin in front of the stage) and dreaming of meeting Beyoncé, Luv also goes to a Syrian refugee camp where she gives music lessons to Syrian-Kurdish children.

They practice scales in class and the students volunteer to sing patriotic songs before a battered piano is brought in, which the older brother of one of Luv’s students is able to play (he knows "Mozart from Germany and Tchaikovsky from Russia" as he himself proudly describes it). One of the film’s few chuckle-inducing moments occurs when the mother one of the children in Luv’s class wonders whether Rihanna is Kurdish or American  — she’s actually from Barbados — and why her eyes are "always so sad?" It’s suggestive of how important music is for these refugees, turning even the biggest stars into one of their own.

Anwar also shows up at the camp, looking for children who might be interested in following his pilot courses and before he knows it, his class is up and running again (though the film never quite explains who, if anyone, pays for the classes and materials). Between the kids who are into singing and those into flying, there’s a range of willing youngsters hoping for a better future and — as the title already seems to hint — one of the ideas behind the film is to paint a portrait of a nationless nation through its people, with the children here clearly seen as the future of Kurdistan.

But growing up in a time of conflict — Luv was born during the Persian Gulf War, her new students fled from Kurdish Syria — means that their ideas and priorities are often skewed at best. Anwar, for example, needs to constantly remind his pupils that he is not on board with the idea that planes such as the one they are building in class will be used to bomb ISIS or carry out revenge missions; he’s only interested in civil aviation that will benefit the Kurds. (Ghobadi’s upcoming Berlinale title Life on the Border reportedly further concentrates on some of the children from the same camp.)  

Though A Flag Without a Country is well-intentioned, it too often feels a little too loose and unstructured. There are some fancifully conceived scenes that illustrate Anwar’s childhood dream to be able to fly, for example, but Luv doesn’t get any similar scenes and their lighthearted and dreamy tone contrasts too sharply with both the nonfiction scenes in the camp and the film’s dramatic final stretch, in which the threat of ISIS reaches Erbil. If these lives were indeed scripted, it should have been possible to get a better sense of especially Luv’s personality and to have a clearer narrative arc for both leads. Now their lives artificially and superficially intersect but their struggles barely amplify or illuminate one another; they mostly just seem to occur in the same physical space.

Shot on the Red Epic by Aslani, the film looks about as decent as can be expected of a documentary shot in Iraq.

Production company: Mij Film

Cast: Nariman Anwar, Helly Luv

Director: Bahman Ghobadi

Screenplay: Bahman Ghobadi

Producer: Bahman Ghobadi

Director of photography: Jafar Aslani

Production designer: Batin Ghobadi

Editors: Bahman Ghobadi, Batin Ghobadi

Music: Bahman Ghobadi, Ashkan Kooshanejad, Vedat Yildirim, Bajar and Kardes Turkler, Huseyin Karabey, Lawje

Sales: Mij Film


No rating, 95 minutes