By Vladislav Davidzon
May 27, 2016 • 12:00 AM
“…Even by Cannes’ highly mannered standard, the prize for the most inspired set piece of political theater would have to go to the events that took place on the festival’s final Friday when philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy arrived at the premiere of his new documentary Peshmerga along with the high command of the Kurdish army. Lévy sauntered into the screening of his film with a half-dozen picaresque Kurds, dressed in olive tunics and caftans, their heads wrapped in red keffiyeh. They included Gen. Sirwan Barzani, a nephew of the Iraqi Kurdish Autonomous Regional president Massoud Barzani, a female battalion captain, and a Kurdish cameraman who had been wounded in the course of making the film. Also present was the pop singer Helly Luv, also known as the “Kurdish Madonna.”
Lévy’s third wartime documentary after Bosnia! and Le Serment de Tobrouk (The Oath of Tobruk) follows the fiercely disciplined Kurdish forces as they wage war to establish their longed-for pan-Kurdish state, which would be carved out of parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. With their female-integrated battalions, historical enmity to the Arabs, and tolerant disdain of religious dogma, the peshmerga have emerged as the West’s most committed proxies in the war against ISIS. The film tracks Lévy and his crew as they travel for six months with the peshmerga north along the territory held by ISIS toward a major battle in the Sinjar mountains.
Lévy’s previous film about the Libyan uprising (shot along with photojournalist Marc Roussel) was constrained by the necessity of having to explicate his side of the story in the public debates over whether his influence was indeed pivotal in the West’s decision to deploy military force against Moammar Qaddafi. The lack of such constraints in Peshmerga allows him to focus on the Kurds—he seldom appears in the shot—and their quest to forge their own state. “Only the Kurds could rid the world of the scourge of ISIS,” he intones in this love letter to the Kurdish nationalism. The crisp war footage that Lévy’s cameras captured is fantastic and rigorously edited.
Just as in Oath of Tobruk, Lévy pays loving homage to his Sephardi roots and his nostalgia for a time of peaceful Muslim-Jewish co-existence. He digresses with a keen focus on the vanished Jewish past of the places that he visits, searching out the old townsfolk in the recaptured towns who remember communal relations with their long-gone Jewish compatriots. A touching moment in the film occurs when Lévy finds the “concrete link between the memory of Judaism and the Muslim world” in the form of Mike, a jovial Kurdish-Jewish senior adviser to President Barzani.
At the end of the evening, I found myself at the celebratory dinner for Peshmerga, along with the Kurdish delegation, the film crew, and Lévy’s famous artist and socialite friends. The Kurdish generals had changed out of their tunics and into black suits. The French elites and the Kurdish army high command sat in self contained circles at their own tables. The Kurdish Madonna brought along her glamorous Russian-Vietnamese-Finnish girlfriend. In the back of the room, Jim Jarmusch held court imperiously with his own dinner companions. He sat under a painting of the restaurant’s slogan Tous Célèbres Ici (everyone’s famous here) painted in white lettering over red canvas. As the waiters brought out the cake and sparklers, the restaurant’s jam band had been asked by someone to play a special request. They struck up a raucous rendition of Hava Nagila, and our mixed party turned to surprisingly debonair dancing. As we swayed to the music, Mike the Jewish-Kurdish adviser to President Barzani giddily explained to me that the biblical relationship between the Kurds and the Jews had first been prophesied in the book of Isaiah. The theory seemed plausible if one had had enough to drink.”