The Al Murah zone of Iraqi Kurdistan
Here, amid a landscape of fortifications and trenches, François Margolin, the producer of my documentary on Kurdistan, introduces me to Ala Tayyeb. We don’t talk film that day. No shop talk. We talk Sartre, Habermas. The difference, in Ala’s eyes, between a “German philosophy” with an exclusively collective focus and the “French” preoccupation with “the individual.” At the end of an hour of conversation made strange in retrospect by the place, the preparations for the next day’s battle, and the proximity of the enemy, my filming team is complete. A skilled cameraman who, at the front in a live war, speculates on whether history is made by groups or by individuals, one who quotes from George Bataille’s Inner Experience, can’t be all bad. So I bring him on board to work alongside Olivier Jacquin and Camille Lotteau, my two French cameramen.
In fact, Ala is Iranian. A Kurd, of course. From that segment of the Kurdish people who fled the ayatollahs after the 1979 revolution and that Saddam Hussein was only too happy to take in. When Ala decides in 1999 to join the flood of exiles from Iranian Kurdistan, he is 17; leaving his family behind, he chooses Komala, the farthest left of the parties fighting for the allegiance of young people like him. His camp is in Zerguez, in the Karadagh Mountains of western Iraq. He and his buddies read Che Guevara. They argue about the four eras of revolutionary thought—Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao—just as French young people did at the time of rampant Maoism. And Ala divides his time between political indoctrination and military and paramilitary training. Except the context has changed. The regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan has reached an agreement with Teheran and now bars commando operations from its territory. So Ala has to cool his heels. He looks back on the good old days when one could cross the border and sow the seeds of atheistic sedition in the land of the imams.
Is it the “Albanian” discipline of the camp that weighs on him? Or does the foreboding lull that pervaded Julien Gracq’s The Opposing Shore, that sense of being a phantom soldier in an imaginary army, eventually come to seem ridiculous to him? Or should we believe the story that the party leadership stumbled upon a post in which Ala complained, “Enough of being a professional refugee! Shame on these commanders who live like yuppies and beg the Americans for subsidies while denouncing imperialism”? What is certain is that he is gaining a reputation as a hothead. His leaders lose confidence in this rebel who has begun to read Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. And one day someone warns him to watch out that he isn’t found one morning in his trailer dead from a “self-inflicted” wound. So he decides to act first. One evening in June 2006, he packs up his books and takes off.
About this part of his life he speaks willingly. He travels to Turkey, then on to Greece, the standard itinerary of those who are not yet called migrants. He lands in Italy. Then Cannes, to which he will return years later when our film is selected for the Cannes Film Festival, but where, for the moment, he sleeps on the beach, rummages in dumpsters to eat, and devours Balzac’s Human Comedy in Persian. And then there is the trip north by train as a traveler with no bags and no ticket. The conductors are cool: they throw him off, he waits for the next train, gets thrown off again, and so on until he reaches Norway, home to a large Kurdish community. There he intends to seek political asylum.
And there, for six years, he gets by doing odd jobs. He collects the €200 a month allocated for asylum applicants. He completes his awakening to the authoritarian tendencies of the Marxism that he was fed for so long. And then comes the day when the head of Komala, his former party, arrives in Oslo for an official visit. Receptions. Interviews. Kurdish identity here; struggle against the mullahs there. But tell me, you wouldn’t by any chance have among you an asylum applicant by the name of Tayyeb? You do? Well, you should know that this young man is a criminal. Not only an ideological deviant, but an actual criminal. At which point Ala, understanding that his application is doomed, takes the 400 krone he has in his pocket, spends half of it on a rope, wraps the rope around his neck, climbs up on a chair, and hangs himself. But the rope breaks—leaving him no choice but to retrace his steps and return to Kurdistan.
It is 2013. Ala has been talking on Facebook with a young woman named Hero. All he knows is that she is pretty, writes erotic poetry, and lives in Kirkuk, far from his former Komala comrades. When he meets her, it’s love at first sight. You’re a hero, Hero tells him. You were made to change the world. Which he begins to do on local television, where he hosts a talk show that is shut down after a devastating report on the state of the city’s hospitals. And then on a Web daily, Hawlati, where he does battle with the country’s new bourgeoisie. Until another battle breaks out, a war, in fact: the war that Daesh declares against the world—and Kurdistan. He has never been a reporter. He doesn’t own a camera. But he has a cell phone. Armed with that he sends himself to the hottest fronts to shoot footage for television stations. Until the day in July 2015 in the Al Murah sector, when he takes time off to join the adventure of my film.
Three months pass. The filming is only half done. We are in the village ofMounzirya during the battle of Doubayba. Ala has an acute sense of framing, an intuition for the emerging image, often the best, an image that must be captured no matter what. And faces: He has a bias for faces that we agree he should never play down. And finally he has that intrepid courage possessed by all the greats, a quality that Robert Capa described simply as having “unlearned fear.” All of a sudden, we see Ala head off in a pickup toward a village where Daesh has surrounded fifteen Kurds. Mine. Explosion. The three Peshmergas in the truck are killed instantly. Ala, who was standing on the running board, filming, is thrown clear, his shoulder blown apart. Emergency surgery in one of the hospitals whose miserable conditions he had earlier decried. Followed by a second operation in Erbil to remove camera fragments from his neck. Then rehabilitation in Paris with, as a bonus, the passport that had been his dream since leaving Iran. “When do we go back to the front?” were his first words after coming to in the recovery room in Erbil. Soon enough, back to the front he went, one-armed, to wrap up the filming of my Peshmerga with the liberation of Sinjar. Now, on his own, he is one of just a few cameramen embedded with the Kurdish forces battling for Mosul. May he use the occasion to produce his first film. His talent, courage, and extraordinary destiny have earned him the chance.