In the early 1990s, ten-year-old Dana and his younger brother, Zana, 7, are two homeless orphaned boys living on the edge of survival as shoeshine urchins on the streets of Kurdistan, a region in northern Iraq which is ruled by Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. Catching a glimpse of the movie, ‘Superman’, at a local cinema, they decide to escape together to the freedom of America to find the said superhero whom they believe would come and save everybody from the cruelty of Saddam.
Not knowing how dangerous the journey is or even which direction to travel, they embark on an adventure via various modes of transportation – donkey, trunk of a car, underside of a truck – that’s fraught with drama and danger. At the border, menacing soldiers linger with the intention to capture and punish escapees. But the pair’s flight is underpinned by something far more powerful than guns – the unbreakable bond between brothers and the idealistic force of young innocence.
‘Bekas’ (meaning: “extreme loneliness”) started life as a short film in 2010 by Kurdish director, Karzan Kader. That short film won a Student Academy Award. Kader, 28, based it on his own experience escaping as a child out of war-torn Kurdistan in 1992. His harrowing plight brought him to Sweden where, as a refugee-citizen, he studied film at the Dramatiska Institutet in Stockholm.
‘Bekas’ is his debut feature film. It is an astonishingly mature first film out of the Middle East for a young director. Inspiring, idealistic and yet starkly realistic, it is woven out of poverty and despair into a tale of brothers quite warm and poignant.
Director Kader spoke recently to inSing on the phone from Stockholm.
Bekas is the story about your escape from Kurdistan in northern Iraq – then under the tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein – to the West (America in the film but Sweden in real life)?
Yes. In 1992, my family and I fled Kurdistan. We had two choices – to stay and be killed by Saddam Hussein’s forces or to escape to our freedom. My father wanted us to go to America because that was the only place we Kurdish people knew about from TV and radio. As a child, I had seen this movie called ‘First Blood’ with the hero, Rambo. I was thinking, wow, Rambo is so strong and so powerful, we must have him in Kurdistan. He’ll help us kill Saddam and free us. I changed Rambo to Superman in ‘Bekas’. It was very tough to escape. We took almost eleven months to get to Sweden. We didn’t have any more money to go to America. So we settled in Sweden. We felt very safe. We decided to stay here for good and not go to America.
Was your family as poor as Dana and Zana’s?
Our family was a normal family. But when we escaped from Kurdistan, we lost everything. I have an older brother, now an engineer in Sweden. I have two sisters, my younger sister was born in the same month which we escaped. We escaped first to Iran. But we couldn’t stay there. So we got back to Kurdistan and then fled a second time. We didn’t have our home. Along the way, we got poorer and poorer every day. I had my family with me, unlike Dana and Zana. But it was very dangerous and very hot. We lost a lot of relatives back home.
What about the love story which came between the two brothers? Did this happen to you?
Yes, but in a different way. I was in love with a girl after I came to Sweden. I was 15 and it was my first love. But she never looked at me. One day, I told her how I felt, but she said she wanted another boy who said he was going to write a book about her. I told her that’s nothing because one day, I was going to make a film about her. I mean, a film is much better than a book, right?(laughs). I put a little bit of a love story in ‘Bekas’ as a tribute.
Superman is the inspirational figure for the boys in 'Bekas'. But it was supposed to be Rambo. Why did you change it?
I changed it because Superman is more universal and is a hero without guns. The beautiful thing about Superman is that he makes the boys think larger as there are no limits to what he can do. Hence, the boys can invent for themselves what he can do. They imagine that he can come and get rid of Saddam Hussein. Rambo is more associated with guns and violence. I didn’t want to put violence into the boys’ idealism. It’s very important that their hero should be a good, clean person with no guns.
You started to shoot 'Bekas' in northern Iraq in 2011 just as the Arab Spring was breaking out. Was it an extremely dangerous time to make a film in northern Iraq?
Yes, I almost got killed myself. I was with my location manager and we were going to look at one of our locations. We went through this demonstration and suddenly from nowhere, there was an explosion and people were screaming and running around. There was gunfire from armed men. Everything went back to when I was a kid in a war. In seconds. We were two days from filming, pre-production almost done. But it was too dangerous with the child actors, the crew, so much equipment. The demonstrations had been going on for weeks. We had no choice. We went back to Sweden to regroup and wait for a safer period.
How did you find them your two lead boys?
I wasn’t looking for actors. I was looking for two boys who were me and my brother at that age. Who did not only look like us, but more importantly, had the same energy, thinking and speaking with the same force as my brother and I had. I went through something like 20 to 25 schools in Kurdistan looking at thousands of kids. Looking at football teams, going from street to street, going to homes of people who had kids that age. The funny part is the first kid (Zamand Taha) I met in this big search played Zana. And the last kid I met, one day before shooting day began, was Dana (Sarwar Fazil) who just came into a school to pick up his books. When I went to film school, I was told in the first week never to work with children, animals and amateurs. I did all three in my first feature film (laughs).
How and when did you decide to become a filmmaker?
This may sound amazing but I saw a lot of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee films in Kurdistan when I was little and I was in love with those films. I wanted to copy them but I didn’t know how. In fact, I didn’t even know what I was watching was a film. What is a director? I thought it was for real. Only when I escaped to Sweden at eight years old did I understand what a movie was. I asked my teachers so much about films, they told me I should be making movies. I wanted to be in the world of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan even for just two hours.
Now that you have made the story of your very adventurous life so far, would you feel ready to make a comedy or something lighter for your second film?
Well, it has to be a story that I could relate to. I couldn’t make a Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler type of comedy. I don’t really feel for Spider-Man. I’m not the right person for it. But of course I could put comedy into my stories. ‘Bekas’ actually has a lot of humorous situations. It’s important for me that I change something with my films. And I want to make my voice heard. I want to make a film about Saddam Hussein’s terrible chemical attack on the town of Halabja in Kurdistan in 1988. He killed 5,000 people. Till today, no one has put it up on the table officially and said this is a massacre.
Escaping as a refugee from a place of conflict, to becoming a filmmaker in Sweden, what is your message to the world?
To the entire world, I say we need to take care of each other. Take care of your family, your brothers, your sisters, your friends, your colleagues, everyone. We’re all human. We shouldn’t make it more difficult for each other. It’s easier to laugh than to cry.
You have a fascinating story to tell us about ‘First Blood’, the original Rambo movie?
Yes (laughs). I was in America in 2011 for my Student Oscar for ‘Bekas’ and I was sitting next to a man at a reception. He asked me why I did ‘Bekas’. I told him I made my short film based on Rambo coming to save my country from Saddam. He said: “Do you know who I am?” I told him I didn’t. He was angry, he said I was lying. I had never met him before. Then he started to cry. He’sTed Kotcheff, director of ‘First Blood’. I started to cry as well. He said he’d never met a person whose life was so changed by his films. I told him Rambo gave me hope when I was a little boy. This is what filmmaking is about. To give people hope.