Film: Road to Kurdistan

The long history of the Kurdish people reveals a tangled web of geography, covering large swaths of the modern-day Middle East. Kurds have cultivated a rich tradition despite the rise and fall of governments and changing boundary lines, as theirs is a culture without a clear home.  Director Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri brings that tradition into sharp relief with her film Road to Kurdistan, debuting this week at National Geographic’s All Roads Film Festival. In the film, the director examines the relationship between Iraqi and Iranian Kurdistan after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent opening of the Iraqi border.

Road to Kurdistan is a classic road trip story, but one stripped bare of pretension by the urgency of its travelers. We follow Fo’ad, a Kurdish music student, as he travels to Iraq hoping to find opportunities for his band. His fellow traveler, Sadegh-Vaziri’s father, seeks to reconnect to his family’s past. Though many storylines wend their way through the film, Fo’ad is the documentary’s main engine.

It’s clear right from the start of Sadegh-Vaziri’s film that music is one of the strongest threads holding Kurds together. Indeed, one of the film’s most indelible scenes is one in which Fo’ad sings. At first we hear just his voice, a melody wrought with emotion fighting against the wind in the camera’s mic. Then we see him, perched in the back of a truck, singing with his eyes closed. As he shout-sings, the melody wavers until the other travelers find the rhythm and begin to clap, lending the strength of a group to an individual’s impromptu music making. Throughout Road to Kurdistan, it’s this spontaneous coming together that best represents how Kurds have and will overcome political trial.

But this film is as much about travel as it is trial. Traveling means extricating oneself from the familiar surroundings of home and community. As we meet new people, we are forced to communicate who we are without being able to define ourselves in relation to a group. And yet, even as we forgo the shelter of a group identity, we may grow closer to the idea of the group we have left behind in attempt to provide a reference point to others.

As he travels, Fo’ad ruminates on the idea of freedom. He struggles to negotiate between the traditions and allegiances of older generations, and the opportunities of a non-Kurdish world. Caught between those two things, he seeks out a mentor who counsels him to seek not notoriety, but his inner self. An artist, the mentor notes, must work at his art despite the obstacles of a political world. The mentor assures Fo’ad that if he seeks his inner self he will be known and will succeed in his music.

Road to Kurdistan allows us to travel along as a culture navigates between boundaries, forcing us to question where freedom resides—within us or among us.

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The 2011 All Roads Film Festival kicks off tonight (Wednesday, September 14) and runs through September 18 at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. The All Roads Film Project aims to bolster dialog and understanding across cultures by promoting the films and photographs of indigenous storytellers.

To learn more and purchase tickets, visit the project online.

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