‘Memories on Stone’: Abu Dhabi Review

Memories on Stone Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival

Memories on Stone Still - H 2014

Anguish wins out over humor in a revealing film about Kurdistan

A film crew struggles to make a movie about a massacre in postwar Kurdistan

Indie filmmaking has never been a picnic, and many directors have explored its difficulties in a humorous or farcical vein. In the drama Memories on Stone (Biraninem li ser keviri), winner of the Black Pearl for best film from the Arab world in Abu Dhabi’s Narrative Competition, director Shawkat Amin Korki details the maddening frustrations of a film crew in postwar Kurdistan after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Though the gentle humor of his previous films is there, it’s dominated by the angst of the fictional filmmakers as they battle to find actors and resources in a poverty-stricken landscape. Not as easy or charming a picture as the director’s Kick Off, it will likely find most positive response from informed festival audiences interested in recent Kurdish history.

The subject of the film-within-a-film is anguishing in itself: the Al Anfal, or Saddam Hussein’s genocide of Iraq’s Kurdish population along with other minorities. Memories on Stone assumes the viewer knows that from 1986 to 1989, 90% of the villages in Iraqi Kurdistan were destroyed and from 50,000 to 100,000 civilians were executed en masse by poison gas and starvation. No background is given, however, leaving a void for most Western viewers that can undercut a lot of emotion.

Hussein (Hussein Hassan), the film’s director, was a child when his own projectionist-father was arrested for screening a forbidden film. The film was Yol by Kurdish-Turkish director Yilmaz Guney, who shot it from prison by carefully instructing his A.D., and something similar will happen in Hussein’s film.  These early scenes deceptively set the stage for a political film.

But as in Kick Off and Crossing the Dust, the focus is more broadly sociological and human drama takes the center stage. The main dilemma Hussein faces is casting his lead actress; in the macho culture of Kurdistan, cinema is apparently not deemed a suitable profession for a woman. Even when the perfect actress appears (Shima Molaei), she’s unable to get permission from her male guardian and fiancé to act. An attempt to smuggle an Iranian actress across the border, played not too well as adventure-drama, fails miserably. More humorously, the male lead falls to a swaggering, bigger-than-life popular singer (Suat Usta), whose presumed box office appeal far exceeds his acting talent. Take after take, the film-within-a-film looks trite and pretty dreadful.

Yet it’s the best they can do under adverse circumstances. Hussein’s friend Alan (a very convincing Nazmi Kirik), the producer, goes through hell to get it made, even selling his house. “Why ruin your life for a film?” is a purely rhetorical question under the circumstances. In the end, each character is called on to make an enormous sacrifice. Like the metaphorically-charged soccer match in Kick Off, their unwavering dedication and commitment to a cause can be read on other levels, too, bringing the film back to politics in a roundabout way.

Mehet Aktans and Amin Korki’s script works hard to contrast and balance the Al Anfal tragedy and everyday absurdity, the past under Saddam and the independent present, Hussein’s depression and his star’s vainglorious over-acting. This tightrope act takes a lot of energy and a more unified tone might have made for a more powerful human drama, or at least an easier one for the actors to interpret. 

Interestingly, the film is a rare coproduction between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan. Expressive camerawork by Iranian filmmaker and D.P. Salam Salavati (The Last Winter) captures the off-kilter feeling of the story, while music by John Gurtler and Ozgur Akgul adds meaningful local texture.

Production company: Mitosfilm
Hussein Hassan, Nazmi Kirik, Shima Molaei, Suat Usta, Salah Sheikh Ahmadi, Rekesh Shahbaz, Bangin Ali, Hishyar Ziro
Director: Shakat Amin Korki
Mehet Aktans, Shawkat Amin Korki
Producer: Mehmet Aktans
Director of photography: Salem Salavati
Production designer: Fazel Jiyan
Costume designer: Tina Hesami
Editor: Ebrahim Saeedi
Music: John Gurtler, Ozgur Akgul
Casting: Salih Arif, Angelica Germana, Soran Ibrahim
Sales Agent: Mitosfilm
No rating, 97 minutes