Kick Off -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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BUSAN, South Korea -- The plight of minorities and refugees in war-scarred Iraq is encapsulated by an illegal multi-ethnic settlement that tries to stage a friendly soccer match under obstacle-strewn conditions in "Kick Off." Iraq-Kurdistan-born Shawkat Amin Korki's second feature achieves the same even-keeled direction and candidly involving human dramas of his debut "Crossing the Dust." Moreover, while making a clearer indictment of war and politics, he leavens the grave subject with humor and ravishing black-and-white images of the stadium, which dominates as a potent symbol of the squatters' socially trapped and spiritually debilitated psyches.

The film should be top of the list for festivals or events promoting humanitarian causes. It could also score goals at European art house festivals.

In Kirkuk, Iraq, a group of Kurds, Arabs, Turks and Assyrians who were displaced during Saddam Hussein's reign have turned a disused soccer stadium into their makeshift home.

In 2008, the Iraqi national soccer team wins the Asian Championship. The rare opportunity to cheer Kurdish players prompts single-father Aso (Atug Asu) and his friend Sako (Anwar Sako) to set up an open air projection of the match for the residents.

Even as the threat of private redevelopment and imminent eviction looms, Aso indulges in daydreams of proposing a national match for Kurds, Arabs, Turks and Assyrians. He gets as far as holding a trial match between these groups within the settlement, but misses the chance to confess his love for an Arab refugee, Hellin (Hamajagar Hilin).

The outdoor screening and trial match, both strewn with ludicrous mishaps and hilarious improvisations, are choreographed in a light tone reminiscent of "The Cup" which also centers on exiles -- little Tibetan monks living in Bhutan fixated on the World Cup. One infers that the squatters' soccer mania stems from lack of other prospects or purpose, or hope. Yet, Amin Korki also observes their joie de vivre, even when the impact of war is never far way, intoned through off screen terrorist attacks and landmine casualties. Especially poignant are images of Aso's teenage amputee son Diyar (Hamed Diyar), wearing a Zidane T-shirt and gazing dully at the goalpost on his crutches.

The cinematography has a documentary or new footage feel, but scorching realism is modified by images of a stark, surreal beauty, like an enigmatic man with a goat who haunts the spectator's stand, or a horse running wild through the field during the game. Only pretentious gestures are inexplicable reddish or yellow tints and the arty handling of a heavy ending.

Pusan International Film Festival -- New Currents

Sales: Small Talk Inc.
Production: Narin Film, NHK, NEP (NHK Enterprises), Kurdistan Cinema Organization Suleiman, Kurdistan TV Korek
Cast: Atug Asu, Hamed Diyar, Hamajagar Hilin, Anwar Sako.
Director-screenwriter-producer: Shawkat Amin Korki
Director of photography: Salem Salaveti
Production designer: Hassan Ali
Music: M. Reza Darvishi
Editor: Mastaneh Mohajer
No rating, 81 minutes