Saturday, December 12, 2009

Kilometre Zero: My first Kurdish film related to Iraqi history

Kurdish filmmaker Hiner Saleem's Kilometre Zero is a tale about a Kurdish man's journey across a war-torn Iraq. Zero takes place weeks before the chemical bombings in Iraqi-Kurdistan in the culmination of the al-Anfal operation. The film exposes the fission between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq through the relationship of the protagonist, Ako, and his Arab driver. This relationship is portrayed in a comical manner, showing that the disconnect between the two ethnic groups is much-a-do-about-nothing. The exposition of historical events in the story is sometimes executed through radio reports, but most of the history is insinuated as the narrative unfolds.

Saleem's story is experienced through Kurdish eyes. The Kurds are located primarily in the North of Iraq, which was "created by Britain," with "an enormously diverse population."[1] This diversity among the population was ignored since Iraq's creation, leading to a Kurdish striving for an independent state separate from the Arab majority. The Iraqi government saw this as a problem because they wanted a centralized state, which would exist under the banner of "Arab nationalism."[2] Conflict erupted between the two groups throughout the 1970's. The conflict usually ended in stalemates because Iraqi forces could do little against Kurds in the mountainous regions. The militants were also receiving significant amount of support from Iran. The Kurdish relationship with Iran would become a chief reason for Saddam Hussein to conduct ethnic cleansing through a reign of chemical terror on Iraqi-Kurdistan. This relationship was put on hold by a deal brokered between Iraq and Iran over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which caused Iran to shut its borders to the Kurdish peshmerga, or militia, which caused the Kurds to be "decimated by the Iraqi air force."[3] A ceasefire was later forced on the Kurds and Hussein "uprooted as many as 250,000 Kurds" then "forced large numbers of Arabs to move to Kurdish territory" to dilute the population.[4] Despite Hussein's attempts, the Kurds were able to organize small pockets of resistance and keep the peshmerga in operation until the Iran-Iraq War, which dealt a devastating blow to Iraqi-Kurdistan.

The film focuses on the weeks before the Iraqi destruction of the Kurdish communities in the North. In 1987, Hussein became nervous about his stalemate on the Iranian front so narrowed his forces on the Kurdish territories. Hussein did this because he wanted to crush the peshmerga for sharing intelligence with the Iranians.[5] Ako, the main character, is introduced as a reluctant army reservist afraid of being sent to fight Iran for a country he cares little about. His feelings towards Iraq are illustrated by an early scene of the film where Kurdish men are rounded up and taken to a fortress for no reason other than to humiliate or kill. An obese man, Sami, is stripped to his underwear and told to run around and dance for the pleasure of Iraqi officers. Furthermore, there is an impromptu interview process where Kurds are asked about their profession and what they thought of President Hussein. If the answers are not sufficient, they are walked to a steep ledge and executed. This highlights the culture of fear the Iraqi government used to dominate any dissenting factions. This is accomplished by reinforcing an Arab identity and turning the Kurds into the binary opposite of Arabs. One way the Iraqi state achieved this state of fear can be seen in the film when Kurds are lined up and proclaimed agents of Iran, which is an agent of Imperialism. They are then shot in front of the predominantly Arab troops.

The binary is expressed in Ako's relationship with his Arab driver. Ako is sent to deliver a body in Iraqi-Kurdistan, only after a few days of fighting near Basra in the South. The driver and Ako rarely talk and when they do, it usually expresses an aggressive, yet comedic, disdain for each other. The driver does not hide the fact that he thinks Kurds are the source of Iraq's problems throughout the entirety of its national history. The filmmaker sets this hatred up, then has it climax when the two men get out of the truck in the middle of streets to talk about "Iraqis and Kurds." This is meant to finally set the story straight and explain the hatred between the two. Ako and the driver both tell each other to "say something," but neither says anything. This is the writer/director's way of saying the hatred is nonsense and irrational, because neither man can create a rational argument and make sense of the fractured relationship.

Another historical nuance in the film is expressed when the Iraqi check point officers want Ako to keep off the road during the day to hide the amount of causalities wreaked by Iran. This was characteristic of Hussein's policy during the war. He wanted to hide failures far away from the people, because he was afraid of losing support when his subjects saw the amount of loss inflicted by the Iranian neighbors.[6] The losses are seen when Ako's makeshift hearse pulls behind a wall and over fifty other cars carrying coffins are revealed. This exposes the extreme number of casualties that Iraq was experiencing during the war—a war that Hussein mistakenly thought would be a quick success.

By the end of the film, Ako returns to his beloved Kurdistan, which was deserted as a result of Kurds trying to escape the Iraqi bombings. After Ako is reunited with his family, director Hiner Saleem tries to paint the screen with terror. Ako and his family run for their lives as a jovial afternoon is turned into a war zone. The Iraqi jets pound the region without pause. The excessive bombing was commonplace in the al-Anfal operation. This is translated as the "spoils of war," which was largely a scorched earth policy against Kurdish territories.[7] In 1988, this culminated in the chemical slaughter of Halabja, where 5000 people were killed. The attack is referenced when Ako listens to the radio by an abandoned home.

The film ends on a positive note for Kurds. Ako and his wife, Selma, listen to another radio report in the 2003 at the time of Baghdad's fall. When they hear this, they exclaim, "We are free, our people are free!" The celebration is justified because Hussein's al-Anfal and ethnic cleansing of Kurds resulted in 80% of Kurdish villages destroyed and countless dead.[8] After Iraq's war with Iran, the Kurds constantly experienced forceful treatment and oppressive laws. One law even outlawed the Kurds from farming. This destroyed any form of self-sufficiency for the Kurdish population. With Saddam Hussein gone, Ako believes the Kurds are finally free.

[1] Cleveland, William L., and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East. Fourth Edition. Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2009. Pg. 410.

[2] A History of the Modern Middle East. Pg. 410.

[3] A History of the Modern Middle East. Pg. 411.

[4]A History of the Modern Middle East. Pg. 411.

[5] Maher IV, Liam. Kurd's In Iraq Lecture (December 2, 2009).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.


  1. Something is off with the formatting in the first paragraph sorry.

  2. The formatting errors happen every time I copy and paste an essay into the blogger template. Something doesn't translate well.

    I certainly learned a bit from reading this, even though I didn't think the movie was all that great.