Surprise! In an unprecedented movement, on Monday, 16th of May, second week of Cannes Festival, the official committee of Cannes announced the addition one more movie to this year’s selection: it is philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy’s documentary, “Peshmerga”.
The film will be aired for the first time, at 15:00 pm, on Friday 20th of May, in André Bazin’s auditorium in Cannes.
A film by Bernard-Henri Lévy
More than twenty years ago there was Bosna! (1994).
A few years ago, The Oath of Tobruk (2012).
Now, Peshmerga, the third part of a trilogy, opus three of a documentary made and lived in real time, the missing piece of the puzzle of a lifetime, the desperate search for enlightened Islam. Where is that other Islam strong enough to defeat the Islam of the fundamentalists? Who embodies it? Who sustains it? Where are the men and women who in word and deed strive for that enlightened Islam, the Islam of law and human rights, an Islam that stands for women and their rights, that is faithful to the lofty thinking of Averroes, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, Ibn Tufail, and Rumi? Where, if it exists, can we find that land of tolerance and peace that will serve as a beacon of a gracious and hospitable Islam, the only form of Islam capable of overcoming the new will to purity? The Islam that Emmanuel Levinas had in mind when, as early as 1959, in a beautiful speech to the Jewish student union of France, he proclaimed: “Islam is, above all, one of the principal factors in the constitution of humanity. Its task has been arduous but splendid. Muslims have understood, better than anyone, that universal truth is worth more than local particularity. It is not an accident that a Talmudic apologist cites Ishmael among the few babes in sacred history whose name was given and announced before their birth, as if their function in the world had been, for all eternity, foreseen in the economy of creation.”
The quest of a lifetime.
A long and painful investigation, rife with obstacles, reversals, and disappointments, one that, since my early days in Bangladesh, has occupied a large part of my life as a thinker, writer, and activist.
Here, with this third film, this hymn to Kurdistan and the exception that it embodies, I have the feeling of possibly reaching my goal.
Kurdistan is Sunnis and Shiites, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Aramaic-speaking Syrians living freely with Muslims, the memory of the Jews of Aqrah, secularism, freedom of conscience and belief. It is where one can run into a Jewish Barzani on the forward line of a front held, 50 kilometers from Erbil, by his distant cousin, a Muslim, Sirwan Barazi… Better than the Arab Spring. The Bosnian dream achieved. My dream. There is no longer really any doubt. Enlightened Islam exists: I found it in Erbil. That will be the first lesson of the film.
Twenty years ago, the brutality of the Serbs; rockets raining down on Sarajevo.
Nearly five years ago, Gaddafi’s tanks and the rivers of blood promised in Benghazi.
Today, the dark force of the beheaders of the Islamic State rising, swelling, and cresting.
Today, yes, the Yezidis of the Sinjar mountains deported; the Christians of the Plain of Nineveh hunted en masse, humiliated, tortured, crucified; rebels from moderate Sunni tribes put to the sword; the martyred women of Mosul and Ramadi; the dark rule of religious fanatics; the deaf ear they turn to their adversaries’ will to live; and the Christians, again, on the front line of a long-running persecution, a Calvary in which the stakes are humanity’s past—and thus its future.
And, against all that, against the carnage of Mosul and the sentence pronounced on Palmyra, against this rectangle of hate that already encompasses half of Iraq and Syria, one power, one alone, is standing up and giving fight—a single, small power is risking death and succeeding. Oh? What about the Shiite militias, you ask? Yes, there are the Shiite militias, but to date their military effectiveness has not been clearly demonstrated. And if it were to be, the price to the region would be a dramatic strengthening of Iran and a multiplication of the cortege of war crimes, collective punishments of Sunnis and Christians, kidnappings, and terror already seen in the villages “liberated” by the “brigades of vengeance.” No, presently there is only one force, a tiny force, that is able to stand up—that has stood up. There is only one small armed force to hold the thousand-kilometer front that prevents Daesh from spreading, a force that is the world’s sentinel, that has accepted the challenge from which the rest of the world has shrunk. That force is the Kurdish Peshmerga.
Let’s investigate, as we have before.
Portraits of a group of admirable fighters.
Why are they fighting, how, and with what?
How do they administer the areas they liberate, and why do the residents of those areas suddenly breathe easier?
Isn’t it strange that they are so alone, kept at arm’s length by a West whose best allies they are?
Under the circumstances, what accounts for their bravery? Why do they stand up to an adversary that, so far, no one else has been willing to take on?
In 1961, Dana Adams Schmidt published his “Journey Among Brave Men” in the New York Times.
A half-century later, it’s the same story, except that, this time, the admirable men also include women. Like Schmidt we will go out and meet on their own ground the fighting units that the assassins of the Islamic State fear more than any other.
These Kurdish women and men are in direct contact with barbarism.
They are the sword and shield, the rampart, and the front line: If they prevail, we are saved; if they yield, the worst is certain. Let’s tell this story.
Film lovers know Robert Kramer’s Route One USA (1989).
It is this film, with its trip down the east coast of the United States, that the team will have in mind as the adventure begins.
Because a front is also a route, a road.
A thousand-kilometer front is a thousand kilometers of a very different kind of road, but it is still a road, a long road that must be traveled slowly, patiently, in synch with the rhythm of war.
Trenches and paths.
Deserts, mountains, plains populated or wild, cities and towns, bivouacs, more deserts—on the road.
One day, the surprise of an anonymous face, a meeting, an unusual individual.
Another day, an incident, an accident, at first seemingly devoid of meaning, the troubling strangeness of silence; one of those sequences of ordinary life that Flaubert called the litter of everyday life; a phrase left hanging; a sign undeciphered; the apparently insignificant events that are a part of war.
Another, between Sinjar and Kirkuk, in the heart of the war but removed from its major theaters, a forgotten village that remembers the tragic history of this great people, bruised but defiant, battered but never ceasing to believe, to hope, or to resist—cut to a simple place, free of history, except that the entire frustrated history of Kurdistan will bloom there before the camera: a glorious history checked by the infamy of others; the history of a land promised and betrayed, ardently desired and cruelly refused. The Kurds’ destiny is reminiscent of that of the Jews—this, too, the camera will tell.
And on yet another day, by dint of waiting and watching, lingering, poking about, hesitating, gauging the wind, leaving everything to chance like a child, on that day, after many kilometers of patient waiting—as in “The Desert of the Tartars” (1976) with its frozen time, “The Opposing Shore” (1951) with its parapets of earth and sand, the inevitable “Homage to Catalonia” (1938) with its dug-in soldiers—one day, yes, after long hours killed trying decipher the landscape’s lines of chance, life, and death, there will come the sudden acceleration, the thunder and chaotic tumult that are the other side of war: the moment of the offensive, the coup de main, the sneak attack, the lightning strike: It will be the battle of Mosul, perhaps, or Ramadi—who knows?
Several cameras …
At least two back-up teams.
Plus the drones lent by my friend Henri S., which will allow us to film ten kilometers beyond our location, over and behind enemy lines …
With the Kurdish general staff having given us access not only to its military archives but also to its front lines, its special forces, and their operations, we should be able to capture all or nearly all of the gathering battle on which will hang, in real time, the future of terrorism, of radical Islam, and, in a sense, of the democratic idea.
This will be my third time filming war.
Never before have I done so in this way, at this rhythm, and with this distinctive pacing.
Never have I done so by adopting the path of the road, its discipline, its method.
An ode simultaneously to the road and to the Peshmerga.
The song of the road, the very principle of the “road movie.”
Does the road make the film or the film the road, Leopold Bloom might ask in a remake of Ulysses? In this case, the road will make the film. The ode will provide the method, and the method will sing the ode.
Let’s hit the road.