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‘A Dilo’ Director Shein Mezour on the dangers of documenting a warzone

After securing Best Feature Documentary Film at the 2021 Indy Film Library Awards, A Dilo Director Shein Mezour spoke to Indy Film Library’s Tony Moore about the process for producing the film, Kurdish identity, and the challenges he faced from all sides while documenting the Pershmerga’s fight against ‘Islamic State.’

A Dilo is certainly a powerful piece and, with its blend of footage from the front line, pastoral elegiac sequences as well as clips from Peshmerga and IS sources, it must have been a demanding work to edit. Yet it flows so well. I am guessing that because of the technical ability on display this was not your first movie. But I can’t find any reference to any previous work on the web. Could you tell us how you got into making movies and about your work up to A Dilo?

As a ten-year-old child with no pocket money, and after school I trekked on foot for 10 kilometres to the centre of the city of Moh Sila (Mosul) in Iraq, to visit cinema theatres and look at the photographs exhibited on the foyers’ walls before the ticketing box office.  Since the photos were none sequential my mind made up the stories from the exhibited photos, mostly of B grade American films as well as Indian films.  Unaccompanied child at such places full of Arab paedophiles, I was a constant target for them, yet, my wit and lucky stars saved me from all of them. Every summer holiday I worked as a waiter and cleaner for small Kurdish owned restaurants, all the money was handed to my mother.  I was ten when I saved tips money and purchased my first camera which was a sliding Akfa with a disposable flash.  It was around 8 pm when the urge to use the flash on the camera got the better of me.  I was walking the ten kilometres back home when the flash went off.  Minutes later, a speeding car screeched to a halt and two Arab men in civilian clothes ran towards me and knocked me unconscious.  I woke up naked sitting in a chair, being interrogated and constantly sworn at by the Arabs.  The next day I woke up naked, and bloodied from top to bottom on a pile of garbage with ants and cockroaches crawling all over me.  The Arabs may have thought I died, because I may have died.  I never told my mother what the Arab secret service, or police or whatever did to me.  But I wrote the full story decades later. 

I studied Engineering and worked, and funded my younger brother Keary junior as I directed him to study cinema in Baghdad.  My brother Keary junior and I made two short films for the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad as graduation projects for him.  He wanted to leave prison Iraq, when no one could do that, not even birds could leave Iraq at the time.  I spent fortunes and bribed the Arab secret service to allow him to travel overseas to purchase an Ari camera and return, but I advised him not to.  When he did not return the secret service were at our home every second day asking about him.  I played them like no other has.  But it was getting really really hot on me this time because I was Keary Junior’s guarantor.  I received a tip that my time was up, so I hurriedly left work in a taxi, crammed my mother, brothers and sisters in it and we fled to an unknown destination, leaving our possessions and home for the Arabs to loot.  That was the fourth house we left for the Arabs in the city of Moh Sila.

In 1996 I studied script writing in Australia, while my brother Keary junior who was in Europe, still received my money my stories.  He made a short film based on one of my stories.  It participated at the host country’s film festival. In three years I wrote 12 fiction feature films and submitted them to the Australian Film Commission and Film Victoria to no avail.  Only Aussies can be funded.  Non-Aussies have to meet thousands of conditions, and would still be rejected.

I worked for eight years on a documentary titled Nipper about the IVF pioneer Prof. Carl Wood.  Australian ABC advised me to use one of their producers otherwise they won’t accept the documentary if I made it alone.  I tried five Aussies who had produced for the ABC.  After receiving the material one by one they tried to steal the documentary from me and sack me.  I complained to the ABC five times, and that was the end of that documentary.  It was never finished.

After many failed attempts to secure fund from the Australian Film Commission, Film Victoria, ABC and SBS, I gave up on trying with the Aussies.  In 2009 I visited Kurdistan north of Iraq with a big Panasonic camera, a tripod, laptops and harddrives. 

I applied to the Ministry of Arts and Media in Erbil to shoot 15 projects in Kurdistan.  At the same time two young Italian women around 20 years old with no experience in cinema were immediately granted massive funds, sprawling accommodations, security guards, logistical support as in the latest line of 4WDs, and open access to world heritage sites.   I joined them pretending to be part of the crew.  The story was implausible and the filming was a load of trash.  It was a flimsy film called “The Flower of Kirkuk” about the Anfal Genocide when the genocide never occurred in Kirkuk.  I was kicked out of the crew after the Italian girls discovered I was not part of the crew because one of the Kurdish crew from Duhok informed on me, even though I taught that Kurd how to use his video camera properly, because he only knew how to press the On button.

I was given the run around for two years, spending massive amount of money on travels, food and accommodation, between Duhok and Erbil.  During that time other things happened to me in this Kurdistan that I nearly lost my life.  I returned to Australia and filmed “Burning For Love”, using Aussies to play Kurds.  The documentary participated at the Sun and Sand Film Festival in Beloxi, USA in 2013-14. I went back to Kurdistan and took to the road hitchhiking.  I was picked up by all kinds of people in Kurdistan, where I delved into their lives while they were questioning me.  I interviewed hundreds of people of all kinds of professions, especially the Peshmerga of the old times who fought the Arabs in the mountains of Kurdistan between 1961 and 1988.  I made a documentary titled “Shahé” about a centenarian woman with no hands.  It was accepted at some obscure film festival, which gave me 9 days to deliver the film, which I failed being in Kurdistan where I survived more attempts on my life.  Both films are on Vimeo.

A Dilo is a deeply political film which gives a voice to the exploited frontline soldiers of the Peshmerga. Could you tell us how your own political viewpoint came to be formed?

My first political activities were when I was eight years old.  My father Keary was a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the 1970s.  The elites of the KDP such as teachers, engineers, doctors and very skilled tradesmen did not accept the tribal form of the KDP, which is still dictated by the Barzani clan, and wanted reform.  After the elites of the Kurds’ reforms were rejected by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, they fled with their families and formed an opposition seeking to negotiate with the Arabs instead of fighting them.  My father was the only none elite in the newly formed Reform Party.  The Arabs secret service insisted the name should be the Revolutionary Party in Arabic language, otherwise it won’t be registered.  Due to my avid love of literature and being a mathematic wizkid I was the only child allowed into the Revolutionary Party meetings, and discussions, and I had access to their library and many of their secrets.  They had the only library which had Kurdish prints as novels, short stories and poems.  So I was exposed to literature from around the world through their books as well as their monthly magazine Roj New / The New Day.  Kurdish was forbidden, but the Arabs tolerated the Revolutionary Party because of its opposition to the KDP.  My love affair with literature was way before the age of eight.  I often stayed the night listening to stories, sagas, ballads at our house and houses of other Kurds since I was four.  Five years after it was formed almost all members of the Reform Party were terminated in reprehensible ways.  I am the only surviving member of the Reform Party. 

Of course living in the city of Moh Sila, under the terror of the Arab occupation, who imposed their culture, language, traditions and worst of all their hate religion as well as their political will, every student had to join the Arab Baath Party, or will not just be expelled but expelled from life.  While the successive Arab governments, generated by the English occupation in the 1920s, committed numerous genocides against the Kurds, and filling the lands with imported Arabs from Saudi Arabia and Jordan, the city of Moh Sila was increasingly becoming more Arab dominant, and lost its ancient Hurrian culture and heritage.  I lived mostly among the Arabs, and spoke Arabic better than them, learnt the Quran off by heart, learnt everything about the Arabs, especially their thinking.  One of the fundamental things I learnt is to be clever at my studies but pretend to be very stupid otherwise.  Arabs loath the existence of the Kurds/Hurrians.  Any clever Kurd/Hurrian is terminated by the Arabs regardless of whether the Kurds/Hurrians were pro or against the Arabs.  I was also exposed to Communist Kurds, who secretly and desperately wanted to recruit me, even though in my discussions with them I shredded Communism.  I was well read, so well read I scared the demons out of the Kurdish elite.  But no elites remained after 1991.  As for the educated women they never wore the vail before 1991.  After the Kurds became autonomous, the Kurdish leadership firmed Islam and imposed it on the population by banning any criticism of Islam or the Mullahs who are descendants of the occupying Arabs, and Arab propagandists.  The Kurdish government also decreed that taxes are waived if a business owner built a mosque.  Mosques were built like wildfire.  There are no libraries in Kurdistan.  There are no factories in Kurdistan, and any and all factories before 1991 were shut down.

A Dilo as seen in the movie is certainly a charismatic human being. Did you set out to base the film around his character or was this something that happened as the film progressed?

I met A Dilo while I was filming Shahé.  I did not give much thought about him in spite him approaching me a number of times.  As I became familiar with him, I learnt much about him, and he started talking about the conditions of the Peshmerga.  He is the kind of person who did not trust humans.  He was more at home in the wilderness among the wildlife.  As soon as he returned from his Peshmerga duties he would spend almost all his leave in the wilderness often alone.  His honesty astonished me.  In Kurdistan honesty is a rare commodity.   The film is based on him from the start.

During the argument over accreditation – I think its either you say of A Dilo or he says of you – we climb mountains, we travel together. Could you tell us a bit about how you first knew each other and how your friendship developed?

A Dilo was explaining to the Military secret service officer Hoshyar’s enquiry about me.  Before making the film about him and the Peshmerga I spent many weeks and months with him in the wilderness.  We travelled the mountains, and we lived off his hunt.  I was going to make a film about him in the wild, and edited some of the footage.  But he was sneaky in his hunt, and wouldn’t let me film him while he hunted.  I trusted A Dilo on my life, but I am weary of the Kurds who learnt to steal to survive since they have been occupied by three brutal and senseless entities in the Arabs, Turks and Persians.  These three Muslim nations have starved the Kurds of everything, on top of killing and raping Kurdish women and children daily.  The only way to survive for the Kurds is to steal from each other.  In fact, Kurdistan should be called Kurdizan, Thievesland.  Anyway, the film project on A Dilo’s life in the wilderness is on hold, and may or not be completed.

One of the great strengths of your film is that you let the Peshmerga speak for themselves and over the film’s course we get to know them as individuals – for instance, the guy with spectacles who was wounded on Mount Shingal. I am sure a lot of viewers came to invest in hope for these guys’ futures. Have you stayed in contact with them? How have they fared in the fraught and dangerous world depicted in the movie?

Araf was a very brave yet reckless Peshmerga.  He used to hunt soldiers of the Islamic State, constantly on the lookout for any of them to pop his head up their trench.   Or he would feign being ignorant of their presence, exposing himself to them, so they would pop up to shoot him, and one of his mates would shoot the Arab or Turkmen.  The brave ones like Araf are trodden by the cowards.  Only the cowards get elevated in ranks among the Peshmerga.  The Peshmerga’s lack of other trade skills make them extremely vulnerable financially.  When the only viable future is to leave the Peshmerga and find a job, when there are no jobs, the future is bleak.  Many Peshmerga committed suicide.  Some of Peshmerga wives sold their bodies to pay for their groceries and feed their children.

The devious play by the Turks have destroyed the semi-autonomous Kurdistan, known as KRG.  Way before that, the elite Kurds in occupied northern Kurdistan, currently called Turkey, were very active politically, and had political power.  This power was a menace against the Turkish nationalism.  In the early eighties, the Turks supplied one of its Intelligence officers called Abdullah Ocalan with weapons and resources to form the Kurdistan Workers Party, PKK.  Abdullah Ocalan assassinated all the leaders of Kurdish political parties.  Once he finished them, the Turks declared him a terrorist.  The occupying Turks labelled the Kurds in general terrorists; used them as a force to eliminate the elite; used the Kurds as target for the Turkish army to practice on since there was no war with anyone else; strangle the Kurdish life and force the Kurdish youth to join the PKK so they are killed.  The PKK members are not allowed to marry or have children, so all the members are infertile.  The PKK kill Kurds who refuse to join them.  The PKK kill those who try to flee their ranks.  The Turks grown in numbers and the Kurds’ numbers constantly diminished.   When the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan was formed in 1991 with help from the US, the Turks plotted to destroy it.  They eventually, under the leadership of Recep Tayyib Erdogan controlled the Islamic State through the Turkmen in Iraq, and diverted them towards Kurdistan instead of the Shi’a Arabs, who were the main target of the Arab faction of the Islamic State.  Turkey busied the Peshmerga with the Islamic State.  The PKK filled in the mountains of Kurdistan in the absence of the Peshmerga.  With the pretext of fighting the PKK, the Turks set up outposts in the mountains of Kurdistan.  Turkey has now 37 army outposts in the Kurdistan region.  There are many Turkish Intelligence MIT offices in Kurdistan roaming armed and free, practically occupying Kurdistan.  The PKK are not innocents.  They mostly kill local Kurds, so are the Turks and Turkmen.

At the end of the film, we hear about an argument within the Peshmerga high command as to your accreditation. How difficult was it for you to get permission to make the movie?

I mentioned some of it earlier where it took years of run around and blatant threats of execution just because I spoke the most dangerous language in Kurdistan, Kurdish.  The Kurdish assayish were paranoid I might blow up their building by speaking in Kurdish.  That was the only crime I committed.  But for this film A Dilo in particular, I applied to the secret service in Duhok for a permit to visit the frontline.  The Duhok secret service office acknowledged my earlier documents, and a month later I was granted a pass with condition that the Department of Cinema in Duhok approved.  I took my pass to the Department of Cinema, which was headed by the very Kurd who informed on me to the Italian women.  When I met this Kurd he pretended he did not know me, or ever meeting me before, even after thorough description of how I taught him how to use his video camera, and the many places we went to while he was part of the crew of the stupid film shot by the Italian women.  The Kurd adamantly denied ever meeting me.  I left my application with him after the Kurd promised to call me the very next day to pick up the approval.  I visited the Department of Cinema in Duhok many times but could not get to meet the Kurd.  He became illusive with all sorts of excuses when he picked up the phone.  Two months later I went to the Department of Cinema unannounced, and waited from 7am till 12:30 pm.  He showed up, and I confronted him.  He said, “Oh, your application is still on my desk.”

I took it off him, and went around chasing the legal department in his department.  That took three more days for their lawyer to read the one page application, even though there were no films or projects of any kind made in Kurdistan, and no one was working or doing anything.  The way to the legal department was made easier after some young staff took pity on me, accompanied me and persisted on helping me navigate their labyrinth of possibly a hundred people doing absolutely nothing.  After completing the application, it was sealed in an envelope and stamped by the lawyer, and sent me to the Kurd.  The Kurd read to me the conditions of the approval which were for me to give them all the footage to look at and censor whatever they did not like.  I signed my approval to their censorship condition.  The Kurd signed the approval after me, sealed and stamped it, and signed on the stamp so I would not tamper with the envelope and open it, Top Secret.  The mail was sent to the governor of the state of Duhok.  A week later the governor’s PA for Arts and Media affairs signed the approval, and put it in an envelope and gave it to me to take back to the Department of Cinema.  I met the Kurd again using the Good Samaritan young man who helped before.  The Kurd opened the envelope, sent me to the legal department and other departments for three more days, then wrote a note directing me to the secret service.  I took the approval to the secret service, who were gobsmacked.  The officer said, “Didn’t I approve your travel to the frontline?  Why are you here again?”

I took my approval letters from the Department of Cinema in Duhok, the governor’s office, the secret service pass, the old approval documents from 2009-2011, and presented these credentials to the Peshmerga high ranks Shaheen Bani and Mehdi Soorchi who agreed for me to stay at their outpost.  I was at the frontline for many months, went back to the mountains with A Dilo many times, and visited the frontline again and again.  Many Peshmerga outposts spanning 30 kilometres including the main outpost, where Brigadier Genaral Ezzeddine Saadun and his military secret service staff Hoshyar headquartered, as well as the Islamic State soldiers were aware of my presence.  The funny thing is that the camera was huge, and the Arabs and Turkmen may have thought it was an anti-tank missile system the Milan for a long time, till the frontloader’s Arab driver informed them it was a camera.  Both Brigadier General Ezzeddine Saadun and his military secret service staff Hoshyar denied they knew of my presence which was baffling.  Ezzeddine Saadun refused to accept all the credentials as well as a call I made to the Chief of Staff of Peshmerga in front of him.   I tried to talk sense into him, but he stomped his feat, fists, accompanied by hysteric yells and accusations.  I could only see a teenager throwing a tantrum for no reason.  In spite what A Dilo had told me about the miserable Peshmerga life, I really wanted a heroic film about the Peshmerga fighting the Islamic State run by the NATO allies the Turks and their Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan.

In the film you make some scathing attacks on what appears to be the endemic corruption and incompetence of the Peshmerga leadership. Given how strongly you make your argument – what was the reaction to A Dilo from the leadership and from wider Kurdish society both inside and outside Kurdistan?

None.  All Kurdish media visual and print are aware of me because I visited all of them while in Kurdistan for ten years.  I had submitted to them one by one at least 20 new and innovative TV projects to no avail.  They are aware of the film A Dilo winning a Lerapetra film award in Greece in 2020, Impact DOCs in the US in 2021, and Indy Film Library in the Netherland in 2021.  Most of those Kurds running such media outlets are double agents of their political parties and/or the Turks, or the Arabs or the Persians.  They deliberately choose to ignore the news including Voice of America Kurdish Service which I supplied with your review, and the three film festival awards the film obtained.  Besides, corruption in Kurdistan is like breathing air for us in the west.  It is normal, and corrupt Kurds are proud of it, blatantly bragging and flaunting their exploits and gains.  It is manly to be a corrupt Kurd.  Being corrupt is not a crime in Kurdistan.  It is a badge of honour that this Kurd can do this.  It is like heroism.  The more corrupt, the higher esteem, the higher the rank.  I am not talking about the Peshmerga leadership alone to be corrupt.  But the whole system of the KRG is corrupt.

The message of A Dilo is deeply pessimistic – you show us a feudal society where the common people are ruthlessly exploited by rapacious warlords. Despite the awfulness of the current situation – can you see any way forward towards a progressive and egalitarian Kurdistan?

The Peshmerga must completely fall under the control and leadership of NATO and the US.  Elections must be held with the direct supervision and protection of the UN, NATO and the US.  The police and various secret service apparatus must be retrained and pledge allegiance to their land and people, not to the ruling clan.

A Dilo has been widely praised which must be very pleasing for you. What are your future plans – are you working on a film at present?

I am currently working on three feature documentaries with very limited resources. The first is about a wild man of the wilderness, not A Dilo. The second is about the plight of the Yezidi Kurds, and the third is about the Anfal Genocide, all first accounts of survivors.  I have shot these years ago, but my limited resources have kept me off them.  Kurds do not give.  They take.  They took my money and much more.

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