Bahman Ghobadi is a filmmaker who is making films from within the people. He is not an outsider coming into a culture or a society and then making a movie about the people and their problems. Ghobady is of the Kurds. Half Moon is about them and him and it’s a simply shot road movie in which every sequence is informed by understanding of the Kurdish situation.
Half Moon – Bahman Ghobadi (Iran 06) viewed Rotterdam Film festival 2 Feb 2007
Where you get to depends on how you travel
Bahman Ghobadi is a filmmaker who is making films from within the people. He is not an outsider coming into a culture or a society and then making a movie about the people and their problems. Movies made by outsiders rarely amount to more than a series of superficial glosses impressions and images stitched together with themes derived from either character or issues (cf In this World – Winterbottom). Films made by incomer directors usually say more about the director’s concerns than the society. Ghobady is of the Kurds. Half Moon is about them and him and it’s a simply shot road movie in which every sequence is informed by understanding of the Kurdish situation. The shots in the film represent not just images and impressions but the complex matrix of the Kurdish people and their lives. It is a film not so much about issues or problems but rather about music as a condition of a people.
In Half Moon the bus carrying the musicians is a dynamic vehicle that opens up the relationship between a people and the historical and geographical vectors that contain and shape their destiny. In the West the road movie usually engages with character and forced situational encounters that typically resolve through violence. Perhaps this is because there is nowhere for us to go in the literal geographic sense; for us the psychic fulcrum of the journey tends to pivot on an inner vector such as identity quest. In Half Moon the travelling musicians have no doubts about who are. The questions posed by Ghobadi revolve about an overcoming, a refusal to permit the world to corrupt spirit.
In Half Moon the old master musician charters a bus to take him and his sons from Iran to Iraq. They undertake a journey from one country that does not exist. Iranian Kurdistan, to get to another country that does not exist, Iraqi Kurdistan, in order to participate in a large Kurdish music festival. To make the journey they have to cross political religious cultural and social fault lines that deny the legitimacy of their people their journey and their music.
The master musician has spent months ensuring that he has all the correct travel permits, passports that will be needed to negotiate the complex series of barriers that will impede their progress. Ghobady’s film is a road movie that is actually on the road. Its strength is that in order to progress, the musicians have to engage in a continuous discourse with the worlds through which they are travelling. In effect Half Moon is a discourse: with landscape; with social fabric of life; with the religious; with the geopolitical divisions of the land.
The landscapes are overwhelming in the film, shimmering realities that suggest an absorption of individual subjectivities into their vastness. The land is a powerful presence: but it’s a presence not an image. The landscapes are not beautiful celluloid backcloths against which a story unfolds. They are, ‘in the story’, at the heart of the film’s discourse. Half Moon begins in the bright sun of Iranian Kurdistan and ends in the mountainous snow vistas of Turkey. In this final sequence, what remains of the little group of musicians tries to pass over the snow covered heights of Turko-Iraqi border. As the master musician ploughs through the snow we understand something about landscape: that it is of the earth and we are part of it. The snow is a harsh environment and in its whiteness spreads across the visual field effacing all referents other than itself. As it overpowers it becomes an embrace of death. A death that is in the end accepted and even welcomed: a return to a primary union with the earth for which there is a longing and a belonging. And this is neither sentimental nor romantic: it is simply the consequence of the spirit taking certain decisions in particular circumstances. The landscapes are, ‘in the story’, at the heart of the film’s discourse. The landscapes are an evocation, a calling up of a history that is happening as the bus moves on its journey. The landscapes are crisscrossed and marked out by invisible hidden lines that represent clan religious social and political boundaries and borders. Each landscape has a menacing aspect and in their hidden folds they are guarded and policed by men with guns who enforce the integrity of these imaginary lines by force.
One motif running through the film is the search by the master musician for a female singer. The female voice is the soul of his music and without it his music is incomplete. The female singer whom he had arranged to sing with them is unable to accompany them because of events in the natural world – severe floods have disrupted the life in her village. For the master the female and the male are conjoined when they come together to play and sing. In the moment of playing and performing they are in complete communion. But in the non Kurdish fundamentalist religious culture the female is absent: contained constrained and bound tightly about with the male injunction to be invisible. The female is missing from public life; where she should be, there is simply a hole, a not being there. The female in public is undermined in two ways. Through public censor and opprobrium her self confidence is destroyed, and lacking self belief through she is unable to find her voice. Should the female retain self belief and assert her right to sing in public she may be assailed from without by the sentinels of religious policing who suspicious of public performance by women and intolerant of musical interaction between men and women, forcibly intervene to prevent such occurrences. The reality of this culture is that woman are absent from many fields and Half Moon is a psychical discourse into the consequences of this suppression, not just for the musicians but for the culture.
The bus follows an ever more demented and circuitous passage across Iran Turkey and Turkmenistan in its attempts to find a way across the forbidden borderlands. As they crisscross the land they pass through the villages of the country, the musicians get off the bus for tea and to talk to the villagers. And it becomes apparent that in this land the only people you see are old men. Everyone you see is old and bent. The women (young and old)are absent; and the young men are not there. Some force has rounded them up like steers and taken them to another place. The country is full of absence. Where there should be people they are not there. The bus on its tortuous route runs into check points and road blocks all manned by young men. It seems clear that all the young men have been appropriated by the state and given Kalashnikovs to intimidate and kill. There is a process of brutalisation in play in which guns have replaced musical instruments in the stream of life. The sounds in currency are the crack of the gun and the thud and ricochet of the bullet.
The integrity of Ghobady and his musicians make this a film of the affirmation of spirit. Half Moon is not vacuous feel good road movie; it is a film that affirms faith in spirit and vision . The music in the film is wonderful. In itself it is a force that asserts its right to have a central place in the world. It can meet oppression death meanness of spirit with a call to joy to which the organised forces of destruction have no means of resisting. The political regimes will come and go, religious fanaticism will rise and fall. Music like the land will persevere.