'Peshmerga': Cannes Review

Courtesy of Ad Vitam
A first-hand look at modern war.

French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy follows Kurdish troops fighting ISIS on the ground.

It’s rare to attend a screening in Cannes whose guests of honor include several decorated war generals and a singer known as the “Kurdish Madonna,” but that was the case for the premiere of Peshmerga, Bernard Henri-Levy’s gripping and somewhat flowery combat documentary.

Composed of footage shot during an offensive launched in July 2015 by the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan against Islamic State insurgents occupying a large swath of territory to the south, this embedded battle diary works best when revealing the bravery and resilience of Peshmerga fighters on the frontline of the ongoing conflict, worst when Henri-Levy — or BHL, as everyone calls him in France — allows his bombastic, nonstop voiceover to dominate the proceedings. As the fight against ISIS wages on, this Special Screenings late edition should see festival and TV/VOD pickups due to its topical subject matter, with some theatrical play in Europe.

The term “Peshmerga” refers to the defense forces protecting the Kurds of northern Iraq and neighboring countries — in a vast region commonly called Kurdistan — and who are now leading the charge against ISIS on the ground, with air support from the U.S. and other allied nations. Having had to fight for their land throughout much of the last century, and having suffered a major massacre when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population of Halabja in 1988, these are a people well familiar with war and its many repercussions.

Henri-Levy is also familiar with war, at least as a journalist and philosopher, and he’s traveled to some tough places over the past few decades without ever having had a hair fall out of place. (Along with his impeccable coiffure, BHL is famous for his signature white dress shirts that he only buttons halfway up and seems to have an endless supply of, like Bruce Wayne and the Batsuit.) In numerous articles, essays and books, he’s written extensively about contemporary conflicts in places like Kosovo, the Ukraine and Libya — the latter of which was the subject of his unbearably pretentious documentary Le Serment de Tobrouk, which played Cannes in 2012.

Thankfully, he’s toned down some of that grandstanding to let the Peshmerga campaign speak for itself, providing a tad too much commentary (and tons of unneeded questions) but otherwise allowing us to watch the soldiers retake towns along a 1,000-kilometer front that will lead them to the key ISIS stronghold of Mosul.

While the enemy is only seen from a distance, either through a zoom lens or drone shots courtesy of Henri-Levy’s crew, we spend plenty of time with the Peshmerga fighters, witnessing how they plan their attacks and then hiding behind them as they fire their weapons in the heat of battle. One harrowing sequence shows a fearless white-haired commander leading his squad against a blitz of bullets, the camera cutting just before BHL explains that the man was shot in the head only seconds later.

The film delves briefly into certain aspects of Kurdish history and culture, including the plight of the Yazidi community and the story of current president Massoud Barzani, but mostly remains alongside the fighters (including a few squads of women) as they make their way across the borderland, passing by cities that have been torn apart by years of hostilities.

It’s easy to see Peshmerga as a propaganda movie reminiscent of those made by the U.S. government’s Field Photographic Branch during World War II, framing its troopers as modern-day heroes and providing us with only a single viewpoint. Yet if there’s one regime in the world today that the public would probably compare to the Nazis, it’s ISIS, so Henry-Levy is unlikely to be criticized for stacking the deck too much against them.

Working with material from three cinematographers — including the courageous Ala Hoshyar Tayyeb, who lost his left arm after the truck he was shooting from hit a landmine — editor Camille Lotteau pieces together a comprehensive montage that reveals the Peshmerga’s slow but steady advance along the front, in a war that looks to be far from over.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Production company: Margo Cinema
Director: Bernard-Henri Levy
Producer: Francois Margolin
Directors of photography: Ala Hoshyar Tayyeb, Olivier Jacquin, Camille Lotteau
Editor: Camille Lotteau
Composers: Nicolas Ker, Jean-Fabien Dijoud, Henri Graetz
Sales agent: Orange Studio

In French, Kurdish

Not rated, 92 minutes