Feature Documentary Reviews

A Dilo (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Shein Mazour

Running time:  1hr 23mins

What counts as a Good War? I remember UK political commentators at the time of Bush and Blair’s invasion of Iraq desperately dredged up material from their undergraduate ethics courses to quote Thomas Aquinas on jus ad bellum to give some intellectual weight for backing the decision to go to war – a war of choice.

Out of the carnage of that ‘just’ war emerged the mutant fascism of the Islamic State with its up-front genocide and a serial rapist as self-declared Caliph. One of the targets of IS was the Kurdish people of Iraq who had managed in the chaos following the fall of Saddam to carve out their own autonomous region. Surely, a people’s fight for survival against fascism constitutes a Good War. It does but, as Shein Mazour’s elegant and insightful documentary makes clear, Good Wars are never simple: elites invariably use the sacrifices of ordinary people for their own ends.

A Dilo was filmed as the war against IS had begun to turn in favour of the Kurds. The Western Coalition with its massive and unopposed air power had worked with local Iraqi ground forces to begin to force IS out of Iraq. A key component of the Iraqi forces was the Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga (‘they who face death’). Mazour follows a small group of Peshmerga as they garrison a fortified position in open country. The fort is in the Red Hills of northern Iraq very near to Mount Sinjar. Mount Sinjar had previously become a focus of world media attention when hundreds of thousands of Yazidis (a religious and ethnic group closely related to the Kurds) had been under siege by IS. Iraqi Kurdish forces helped by Syrian Kurdish rebel forces aided by relentless mainly US bombing broke the siege and drove the bulk of IS forces north into Syria.

Mazour filmed the aftermath, what the Brits in Northern Ireland called ‘low-intensity warfare’. Remnants of IS were still active in the area launching sporadic attacks on the Peshmerga and using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against patrols. The area is home to Sunni Arabs, mainly sheep and goat farmers, who the Peshmerga believe to be sympathetic to IS. For Mazour’s subjects, the experience is one of long hours of boredom, but continually edged with danger,in a place where the locals really do not like you.

A Dilo uses pretty much standard documentary film techniques. Mazour supplies the narration. The narration is well-judged and is not constantly in your face. For a music soundtrack, Mazour uses the haunting traditional Kurdish folk music of Raziye Kizli to beautiful effect. There is a small section when Mazour is filming the Peshmerga on the way to the fort in a mini-bus where the bus sound system blares out electronic turbo-folk and the men take to their feet to dance – no seat belts or health and safety here. It is an extraordinary moment – charged with testosterone and warrior spirit. Turbo-folk seems to be the musical genre of choice for ethnic militias in modern wars – think Ceca Ražnatović as the Serbian war drum during the Bosnian war.

Asides from the narration, Mazour gives us interviews with different members of the fort’s garrison. The interviews are informal and conversational – Mazour was obviously accepted into the social group and bonded with his subjects. Gradually, one of the Peshmerga becomes the focus of the interviews – a quietly charismatic character, A Dilo, from who the film takes its name. As A Dilo becomes the voice of the common soldier, Mazour uses a novel and interesting technique when illustrating A Dilo’s stories of the machinations and internal politics of the Peshmerga high command, he cuts to video footage or photographs to identify the people involved.

During the time of Mansour’s stay at the fort, there is no actual fighting, with the exception of a lugubrious heavy machine gunner taking shots at extremely long-range at what may be members of IS or may just be local Arabs herding their goats. However, in a long interview, A Dilo and several of his colleagues recount their experiences in the heavy fighting to break the siege of Mount Sinjar and Mazour illustrates the account with footage either filmed by the Peshmerga or found on the phones of dead or captured members of IS. The footage is vivid and compelling – conveying the terror and horror of humans trying to kill each other. One memorable clip shows an IS command post with high above the silhouette of an angel of death circling in the clouds – an allied warplane. The next moment the building is enveloped in a psychedelic ball of flame, when the flames die away, there is nothing to be seen – the structure and its inhabitants have been wiped out. War as video game.

The quality of the cinematography is excellent throughout. Some of the compositions are astounding. A memorable scene comes right at that start. We see A Dilo leaving home to go to war – rifle in one hand and rucksack in the other. He takes leave of wife/mother on the veranda, the beiges of the man’s attire contrast vividly with the black of the woman’s costume. It is some black – brought to mind a simile from the US songwriter, Randy Newman – black as an old crow in an old coal mine. As the couple embrace, two house martins fly into the eaves above them by which Mazour emphasises the poignancy of the instant.

Mazour continually uses shots of the natural world to contrast with the ugly, banal surroundings of military life. This is a trope that many artists have employed to illustrate the absurdity of warfare when set against a timeless beauty of nature – Mazour uses it sparingly and to great effect. A stand-out scene for me was an interview with A Dilo that takes place in an orchard where the ground is a sparklingly multi-coloured carpet of wildflowers. At the fort, we are shown majestic buzzards hunting high above – echoing the Peshmerga footage of mechanical airborne predators circling to deal death from the heavens. Different species of small birds’ flit about the fort as the humans get on with their martial tasks. I also particularly enjoyed the indoor night-time scenes filmed with what appears to be just the lights of cell-phones which capture the intimacy and a camaraderie of a group living in harsh conditions and under the threat of attack.

The thing to bear in mind when watching A Dilo is that it is not simply propaganda aiming to commend everyone on one ‘side’ of the war – it is a rather more thoughtful polemic which takes a look at the all-too-often overlooked aspect of class-division within the ranks of an army. This might be easy to forget in certain moments, where the film plays a little fast and loose with some allegations in need of citation.

A particular example is when Mazour alleges that the original leadership of IS was comprised of members of the Turkish intelligence services and that IS was originally a creation of the Turkish state under the leadership of the bellicose and growingly dictatorial Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Meanwhile, one of the interviewees states that overgrazing by Arabs and Turks caused the region from Mongolia to the Sahara – the Kurds’ ancestral paradise – to turn into a desert. However, if you can move past these details, however plausible you might find them, the main thrust of the film is a polemical assault on the political and military leadership of the Iraqi Kurds.

Ultimately, Mazour is giving voice to the unheard voices of a particular group of Peshmerga at a particular point in time, and dares to draw conclusions about the way they are being treated in a way that many journalists concerned with ‘objectivity’ might be afraid to. A Dilo in particular is a beguiling and believable spokesperson for the rank-and-file Peshmerga; a Good Soldier Švejk who offers up crude insolence in the face of the idiocies and ineptitude of the officer class. Mazour sets the scene as narrator by describing Iraqi Kurdistan as a feudal society dominated by two clans that pretend to be modern political parties – the KDP and the PUK. The picture painted is one of systemic corruption throughout society and one that permeates every facet of the war effort. The examples of corruption are startling, and go well beyond the nepotism in the selection of officers, or wages being unpaid.

The list is astonishing, and the examples are corroborated by the interviewees. Soldiers on the frontline are said to be suffering from a lack of bullets for their guns because the funds to pay for them had been stolen, while A Dilo claims that his group even had to pay their own bus fares to the frontline. Another constant source of irritation is the quality of the food rations; this is amusingly illustrated when senior officers on an inspection visit are shown being served fresh appetising food for their meal in contrast to the gruel that the ordinary soldiers have to get by on.

The lack of training and equipment is another key point stressed by A Dilo; one which Mazour illustrates superbly with a ludicrous scene where the Peshmerga try to clear an area of IEDs by walking across it trying to spot any signs of them – not a recommended technique. Then we have the Dingo, an armoured car which resembles a massive dark green metallic insect with a venomous machine gun on the roof.

We get a peek inside – it is like we are looking into a space module, precision high tech, lasers, and night vision equipment. It is left unremarked by the narrator but for this viewer it prompted the thought how much it cost and how many schools could be built, or villages supplied with clean water with the money. However, for A Dilo and his colleagues – whose chances of survival it might well boost – the chief gripe is that none of them have been trained in how to drive it or operate its gun. When one of them has a go firing the gun, they are told off by a visiting officer for wasting ammunition.

Overall, these moments of absurdity and tension mean Mazour has given us an extraordinary insight into the lives of some ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. I have only a couple of suggestions as to how the piece might have been made more accessible.

Some of the interviews tend to meander, and while dialogue with an easy conversational tone is a plus largely, more could have been done to edit the content down to make the points being made clearer. Secondly, the story of the struggle of the Kurdish people for self-determination after the fall of the Ottoman Empire to the present day is a fascinating but extraordinarily complex one. I think it would have been helpful for a non-specialist, global audience to have been given more comprehensive background information in the narration.

A wider perspective and relevant to Mazour’s critique of the feudalism of Iraqi Kurdistan would have a given us a take on one of the most extraordinary developments in modern politics – the enthusiastic adoption by the PKK leadership of the political philosophy of the US anarchist theorist, Murray Bookchin. Meanwhile, explaining how the struggle of the Iraqi Kurds fits with that of the Syrian Kurds might have helped explain to a global audience used to news footage of female Peshmerga fighting alongside male colleagues why the only woman on screen in this film is the one saying goodbye to A Dilo at the start.

During the film’s conclusion, there is a reference to problems over Mazour’s accreditation with the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, and I note that the film has received a less that warm welcome in the government media. Looking at the country of origin in the film submission, Australia, I am assuming that Mazour has since joined the Kurdish diaspora which has enriched the lives of many cities across the globe. Wherever Mazour finds himself, though, I hope that he continues to make movies, he has shown a fine feel for editing, cinematography, and film production. Whatever new situation he is in, I hope he continues, as in A Dilo,to give a voice to those at the bottom of the heap: the common people who end up fighting and dying in Good Wars.

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