Erbil, Iraq – Brain-eating kings, demon’s curses, haunted castles: These are not the first things that come to mind when one thinks of Kurdish film – if one thinks anything at all.
Traditionally, Kurdish directors have made films about their people’s struggles, and few people watched. But Syrian Kurdish director Lauand Omar’s new film Curse of Mesopotamia is hoping to change that and achieve what no other Kurdish film has attained to date: mainstream commercial success. A low-budget, independent English-language horror film, Curse of Mesopotamia is the first of its kind in Kurdish cinema.
Born as a refugee in Lebanon after his father became a politically active Kurd in Syria, Omar grew up in Germany and later studied cinema in the United States. He first travelled to Iraq’s Kurdish region in 2005 to visit his father. While there, he discovered a burgeoning film industry supported by funding from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
“They wanted people to know about Kurdish culture,” he told Al Jazeera.
The films that received support were historical dramas that portrayed the tumult of recent Kurdish history. Kurdish producer and editor Fekri Baroshi, whose own films have dealt with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaigns against the Kurds, explained: “If you ask any Kurdish film-maker, they want to make films about what happened to the Kurds.”
While often critically well received, none of these films found a large audience, and accordingly, private investors shied away from funding them. “The problem is that our movies won’t distribute to worldwide premieres or impact the box office,” Baroshi told Al Jazeera. “They’ll just go to film festivals.”
With a grant from the KRG’s Ministry of Culture, Omar made his own drama about honour killings in 2005, before going on to work in television production in Dubai. Nearly a decade later, he returned to film Curse of Mesopotamia.
The film was a passion project for Omar, a horror movie fanatic since childhood. With government funding largely dried up by 2014, he planned to fund the film himself by selling a plot of land he owned in Iraq’s Kurdish region. But he also had hopes for the film’s success: “I was aiming to make a mainstream commercial movie.”
Curse of Mesopotamia is a modern reimagining of the legend of Kawa the blacksmith, who freed the Kurds from tyranny by slaying a brain-eating, demon-possessed king. In the film, the demon’s persistent curse is responsible for the never-ending struggle of the Kurds and the turmoil in the Middle East. Five strangers brought together by a shared nightmare that takes place in an ancient castle are encouraged by a psychiatrist to travel to Iraq’s Kurdish region, as a form of group therapy. Once there, the boundaries between dream and reality crumble as the hero attempts to slay the demon and lift the curse.
With five main actors and numerous set locations, Curse of Mesopotamia was an extremely ambitious project given its low budget and tight shooting schedule, Omar said. Then, two weeks into filming in August 2014, disaster struck as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) threatened to overrun the region.
It's one thing to make a movie about a curse, but suddenly while filming those stories, we started hearing those stories about ISIL burning people alive, raping Yazidi women - the horror was real, suddenly.
As they filmed in the elevated citadel in the heart of Erbil, the crew could hear sounds of fighting on the battlefront some 30km away. “It was really creepy,” Omar recalled.
Many crew members left in order to join the fight.
“They grabbed their Kalashnikovs and went to the front,” Omar said. “At that point, we had to stop.”
French actress Melissa Mars, who plays an evil queen reincarnated as a socialite, said the departure of the crew had a powerful impact: “In the film we were talking about heroes who go to fight for their families and their values – and then this happened in reality.”
After the crew left to fight, the foreign actors were sent back to their home countries. By this point, Omar’s budget was exhausted, with just 40 percent of the film shot. It seemed the project was doomed.
“It’s one thing to make a movie about a curse, but suddenly while filming those stories, we started hearing those stories about ISIL burning people alive, raping Yazidi women – the horror was real, suddenly,” Omar said. “It wasn’t a pleasant experience. My dream looked like it had become a nightmare.”
But seven months later, Omar had raised enough additional funds to continue filming in Jordan. In the end, the film cost $800,000 to produce.
“By Hollywood standards, that’s low budget,” he said. “For me it was everything I had, and everything I could find.”
The film premiered at a movie theatre inside a new shopping mall in Erbil. Just a few years ago, the only cinemas in Iraq’s Kurdish region were rundown and decrepit.
“When I came here in 2005, there was one cinema in the city, and it was only showing porn movies,” Omar remembered. Now, a new generation of Kurds is discovering the pleasures of movie-going.
Hushyar Nerwayi, the director of the cinema department at the KRG’s Ministry of Culture, said Curse of Mesopotamia is likely to perform well at the box office.
“It’s totally unlike everything that has come before,” he said. “Kurdish films have traditionally been about Kurdish culture and history, fighting and suffering. They’ve enjoyed a lot of success at film festivals globally, but that hasn’t always translated into widespread commercial success. Now, new young directors like Lauand [Omar] are working to make films that will succeed at the box office.”
If the film succeeds commercially, it is likely to encourage other similar privately funded projects, and could herald a new generation of commercially minded films taking Kurdish stories to a much wider audience. Jesus Roldan, an American film-maker who has lived in Iraq’s Kurdish region for the past decade and worked on Curse of Mesopotamia, said: “It if does well, it will definitely be the start of something new. Other directors are watching for that.”
Omar is now planning a premiere in Jordan and meetings in the US, hoping to secure a distribution deal. “In January, we will tackle the rest of the world,” he said.
At its first week in Iraqi theatres, Curse of Mesopotamia was second at the box office only to Spectre, the new James Bond film.
“For being a local movie, we did great,” said Omar. “From all the Kurdish movies that have come out this year, we had the biggest audience.”