The birth of the guerrilla film – I trust in the mountains…

Halil Dağ was one of the important pioneers of Kurdish film. We have published a tribute to him on 1. April 2020. The following text is an excerpt of a book with selected texts of him, translated into German by Meral Çiçek, was already in print, but could not be published due to a publishing ban.

I was born in Germany in 1973 as the first child of a father from Izmir and a mother from Ağrı. During primary school I moved back and forth between Izmir and Germany. I completed the middle and high school in Izmir at the Private Turkish College. Afterwards I came to Europe, where I worked during the day and took part in photography courses at night schools. During my three years in Europe I got to know the freedom movement. In 1994, I participated in the work to establish the first Kurdish television station in Europe, MED TV. On April 1, 1995 I travelled to the Middle East as an assistant to a German cameraman for an interview with Abdullah Öcalan. During the interview I got to know the guerrilla fighters in the central party school of the PKK better. After this interview with Abdullah Öcalan, which also represents my first meaningful work, I decided not to return and to continue my life’s journey here. Since then my life takes place in the mountains of Kurdistan, together with the Kurdish freedom fighters.

My way to the film

I never thought I’d make a movie. Not even in my dreams… If I hadn’t gone to the mountains and become a guerrilla fighter, if I hadn’t met the children of the Kurdish people and hadn’t witnessed their experiences, I wouldn’t have been able to make this film. For me the film represents my journey in the mountains. This journey started with photography.

I was not born and raised in this country. Apart from its mountains, I have never travelled to this country we call Kurdistan. Only from afar I have been able to see the lights of the cities. But I swam in the rivers of this country, touched its rocks, my sweat mixed with its green summer heat. Here I made new friends, my friends have fallen. I have pitied them. I lived with the people of these mountains, where I had come only to take pictures. I shared the food, the blankets, the cold with them. I witnessed their death.

At first I felt like a stranger. For me there was no East after Izmir. I only knew that my mother came from Ağrı. That was all. I never cared to know more. I got to know the Kurdish people in the guerrilla. Before that, I had lived with them in different places at different times. But the first people that I consciously perceived as Kurdish were guerrilla fighters. In front of the people themselves I met their heroes. Suddenly I became a friend of the most dynamic and beautiful chosen people of a people. Perhaps this was my greatest happiness.

The spring of 1995, when I landed in the holy city of the Middle East, Damascus1, with my very limited training in photography and camera, marked the beginning of my struggle and vocation. At that time I was only 22 years old. In Izmir I had gone to a private school. In Europe I had shown interest in different professions, but somehow never found the answers to my questions. I was an untrained photographer who had turned to the Middle East. In those days, leaving everything behind, I decided on a trip to the centre of the Middle East not to return. Full of enthusiasm, I could feel that I would find there everything I was looking for in my life and profession. I walked to this unknown part of the earth with its people unknown to me, of whose language I did not understand a word. My photographic camera and my camcorder were ready to record this new life. My soul was ready to live this life without limits. My journey into the life of the freedom fighters began together with my journey into the world of pictures. The enthusiasm of these two parallel journeys nourished each other for years. But at that time I could not know that my experiences in the mountains of Kurdistan would one day carry me to the shore of the cinema.

I used my camera and my camcorder in the mountains for years. I noticed how the pictures I took at first with the excitement of a newcomer turned into a valuable commodity over time. The more I lived with the guerrillas, got to know them, saw them, loved them, made friends with them and thus became one of them, the more I tried to capture their faces and words. And this is how I arrived at the first principle of my life and my profession: I wouldn’t exchange a single face captured in the mountains, not a single word for something else. I shouldn’t skip anything and I should never move only on the edge.

Words and faces of the mountains

For me, the words and faces of the mountains are the strongest expression of the creation days of a people. They are the only reason for me to wander through this part of the earth for years. My friends in the mountains have become the object of my field of vision and the subject of my heart. Sometimes I observed them through my lens, but mostly we were together. Sometimes I was a stranger, sometimes one of them. I walked behind them from mountain to mountain. To reach every height they climbed, every range they reached, my sweat dripped. I did everything in my power to record every word, every face. But deep inside I always felt the pain of never really being able to grasp them. Always something was missing. Next to the mountains I recorded there were always countless words and faces waiting to be captured. The words and faces that I could not record, I have painted into my heart. I call them pictures of my heart. The dark nights, the painful songs, silent laughter, pranks of childish innocence, secret loves that cannot be captured by any lens in the world, I have placed in the frame of my heart.

It is at this point that filming entered my life. So many images had piled up in my heart that I had to find a way to express them. I found the possibility for this in film. Now the time had come to capture the experiences of this country, which I can now call home more than ever, and to make them timeless. I want people to remember what happened here. Remembering means liberation. But forgetting means vanishing. That is why I cannot forget anything and carry all that I have experienced within me, just like the people in these mountains. I add everything to the pictures that my heart has shot. But our memory is not capable of carrying all that we have experienced into the future. We cannot face the wear and tear of time. It is essential for us to share the images, thoughts and feelings stored in our memories and make them accessible to everyone.

I have never experienced this war like the other guerrilla fighters. I did not get this war on my shoulders with the responsibility of a guerrilla. I have not fought face to face, out of breath on the front line. I was always feeling sad to always be one step behind on these paths. Had I been a common guerrilla, I would probably have a calmer conscience.

That’s the reason for my filmmaking.

If I don’t share what I experienced in the mountains and don’t make an effort to communicate this to humanity, I will feel guilty. That will then be my greatest guilt. That is why I do not let go of my projects and persistently run after them. The desire to guard my friendships, my testimonies, my experiences and myself keeps me busy. This is why I insist on filming. I believe that cinema can express what we have experienced in these mountains, the life we call guerrilla. Perhaps the film will seem very tiny between everything else, but its language will express the mountains, the children of the mountains, the Kurdish people. If there is something missing in the middle of this war, it might be the cinema. I would love to give an answer as a guerrilla to this time when betrayal, deception, selling the self and the people have reached their peak and attempts are being made to distort the Kurdish memory. I would so much like to march forward with the rage of a guerrilla to break the dark history of malice. Because I couldn’t be like the other guerrilla fighters I make films now.

The guerilla is everything. I am very well aware of that. If one day the guerrillas are defeated, everything will be defeated. There will be no photos, writings or films left behind. That’s why I’m here, that’s why I’m in the mountains, that’s why I’m with the guerrillas. And the only place where I can make films is here, among the guerrillas. If I want something, it will be from the guerrillas. If I open my hand, it will be only from the guerrillas. If I am to serve anybody, it is only the guerrillas. Maybe they will say that the mountains are not the right place for making movies. But I can’t make films anywhere else. Because I believe in these mountains and in the children of the mountains. I know that theoretically you can make these films somewhere else. Many of our friends are also doing this. But I exist for guerilla film. My journey to life and to the pictures has brought me here.

An Urge

I feel an urge. My strongest feeling at the beginning of film making was an urge. I felt the urge to fill with life everything that had been enriching my soul over the years in the guerrilla. I had no experience with and no knowledge of film. But I trusted the world of ideas in which I lived. I trusted in the way of seeing and thinking in the mountains.

First I waited for a while. I expected that the Kurdish filmmakers would not close their eyes to the guerrilla and the reality that gave life to this people again. If Kurdish cinema were to enter a new phase, this would have to be done outside the existing system. Because the content and form of Kurdish cinema cannot be formed in Tehran, Baghdad or Istanbul. The same applies to the cities of Europe. But the first films by and about Kurds that reached me back then disappointed me. The films were about poor Kurds. In an unavoidable way, the Kurdish person was narrated on the basis of his or her poverty and helplessness. But I had met heroic Kurdish people in the mountains of Kurdistan and lived with them for years. Up to a certain point the portrayal of the poor Kurd can perhaps be understood. But I felt then for the first time that the insistence on these characters is the mistake of the Kurdish directors. Of course I couldn’t deny the existence of the poor Kurd, but this could only be recognized as a starting point for the revolutionary phase. But if this rapprochement is maintained, it is only a misconception.

I believed that the time for the film of the heroic Kurd had come. The Kurdish directors and Kurdish filmmakers could no longer escape this reality. We were in the time of heroism, which had decisively determined the last thirty years of the Kurds. These heroes could no longer be ignored. In the last thirty years the Kurdish mothers had created the noblest heroes in human history. They have not only given birth to poor people. The Kurdish children have written epics in the mountains. I got to know these people, I made friends with them, I lived with them. Those who act in the name of Kurdish cinema could not simply pretend that all this did not happen.

It was up to me to make the film of the heroic Kurds. If everyone else told about misery, I would tell about heroism. The Kurdish people deserved this after thirty years of armed resistance. When a people rises up with thousands of dead, when it pays homage to its children in the mountains with dignity, when it screams with all its strength that it exists, but the Kurdish artists do not see all this, this cannot be excused.

I started the work without any knowledge or experience. I knew that the Kurdish filmmakers would not even take notice of Tîrêj2. But I wanted to show that it is possible to take a different view of the Kurds. I wanted to insist on that. I knew that I was far from a cinematic aesthetic, but I trusted the view of the mountains. I was determined to show, not only with words but also with deeds, that it was necessary to look at the Kurds with the eyes of a Kurd and not of a foreigner or a westerner. I knew that the biggest mistake lay here.

The Kurdish artist, the Kurdish filmmaker looked at his own society from the West, from Tehran, from Istanbul. That was my biggest criticism. It was necessary to look at the Kurdish people from the mountains. Not with the eye of another, but with one’s own eye. The perspective of the Kurdish director was not that of the Kurdish people. This is perhaps the biggest mistake of the Kurdish intellectuals. It is impossible not to notice this strangeness. Kurdish directors look at the Kurdish people like strangers. They look at the society as others want them to.

Kurdish cinema will start in the mountains. Only when the Kurdish artists manage to see the mountains will they be able to create their own cinema. The mountains are the greatest asset created by the Kurdish people. The mountains represent the biggest accumulation and the biggest memory of the Kurdish people. This treasure has been created from the young bodies of Kurdish children. Throughout the history of humankind, the mountains have been the only support for the Kurdish people. The Kurdish people created the mountains. Thinking and seeing in the mountains is a characteristic of Kurds. For this reason, both Kurdish art and Kurdish cinema will be created here.

The Kurdish filmmakers should not look for their world of ideas in the distance, not in the cities where they are alienated, but in the mountains. That is one of my obligations. One of my goals is to make this understandable. I have always tried to express this. I wanted to show the Kurdish filmmakers that they should be proud of their people. Instead of pitying them like strangers, they should see what greatness this people is capable of. If a people has sent thousands of its children to the mountains, then the artists of this people must be able to touch the heart of the people. Otherwise they will not be able to make films for this people.

1Damascus: PKK’s central party academy was in Damascus between 1992-1998

2Tîrêj: Name of the first film made by Halil Dağ in the mountains (2002)