Filmmaker Interview: Behind the Lens
Veteran Swiss cameraman Claudio von Planta talks to FRONTLINE/World
interactive producer Jackie Bennion about his 20-year career shooting documentary features and about what drew him to Karzan's story.
How did you come to make such a personal film?
For a long time, I have wanted to make a film exclusively about the Kurds and Kurdistan and from a Kurdish perspective. Unlike many films, where the Kurds are primarily portrayed as victims of Anfal and gas attacks, I thought my return to Kirkuk story, after the fall of Saddam and spending so many years away, could be the main focus of the film.
Did you always plan to go back to vote in these historic elections?
At the beginning, my story did not include going back to vote in Iraq's first democratic elections. But when January 30, 2005, was chosen as Election Day, I changed my proposal to include the vote. The idea to conduct my own poll came to me about three days before our journey. Claudio [von Planta, the cameraman] was going to make a film in Zambia, and was no longer able to come with me to Kirkuk. So I desperately sent emails around, contacting friends and others, trying to find someone to come with me. Almost everyone refused, and for good reason: I had no commission for the film and only enough money to pay for the journey; and the situation in Iraq was very dangerous.
I decided to go alone and to film a "video diary" style story or maybe even find a cameraperson in Kurdistan. Thanks to a friend, just before I was ready to leave, I got a call from the BBC. I told them I was going to go anyway, and they said that if I came back with the film, they would broadcast a 15-minute version of my story. Then another very good thing happened: Claudio's film in Zambia was postponed, and he decided to come with me to Kirkuk, even though I didn't have money to pay for his life insurance. I was very lucky to have Claudio with me on that journey; I am not sure how many other filmmakers would have kept their energy to the end the same way he did.
When you escaped from Iraq nearly 25 years ago, what were the circumstances that put you on Saddam's black list?
When I was 14, Mukhabarat, Saddam's secret police, arrested me and accused me of making anti-Saddam propaganda. My eldest brother Fazil, who was very rich, saved my life by paying a bribe of many thousands. I am very lucky to be alive, thanks to Fazil. Many people were arrested at this time and we never saw them again. I knew if I was arrested again it would be the end, because my name was on the secret police's list. Going to Europe was my best option. I left in 1980 and went to Italy, and after that I settled in London in 1993. Also, to go to university as a Kurd in Saddam's Iraq, you had to belong to them.
What were the biggest challenges of going back to Kirkuk?
The most difficult part was knowing that I will not see my mum and dad and won't be able to kiss their hands and thank them for all that they did for me. They passed away in my absence.
I was also very sad for Kirkuk city, because despite being the second richest city in oil reserves, it looks like a ghost town. But I was very much inspired by the great desire for freedom and democracy and a new life for many of the people I met on my journey -- in the Kurdish region, in particular, they really want to change; they've had enough of war and misery. This was a new aspect for me, because in England, I could only see bad news about the country and most of the headlines are about the insurgents and terrorists, and the terrible actions of killing innocent people. But we hear very little about the great positive energy people are investing in rebuilding the country.
After being away so long, how much could you remember of the place you left? And how difficult was it to keep in touch with your family during Saddam's rule?
I hardly had any contact with my family during Saddam's reign; the little mail we could send or receive was opened and checked by the secret police. When I finally arrived in Kirkuk, I felt lost. It looked very different, and it took me a week before I really accepted that this was Kirkuk. It was chaotic with too many buildings. There was hardly any space left. In my time, the local graveyard seemed to be miles away in the countryside but now it is part of my district in Rahimawa. Also, because Saddam has brought 250,000 Arabs to settle in Kirkuk and to transform it into an Arab city, houses have been built in the spaces that were once for parks and playgrounds and sports grounds. I must be honest, I never truly felt at home....maybe in my next journey to Kirkuk.
It's not shown in the film, but when you go to place a tombstone on your mother's grave, you come face to face with the man who betrayed you to Saddam's secret police when you were a teenager. And he pleads with you to forgive him. Can you describe what that was like?
"I was arrested and tortured by the secret police because I was a Kurd...I accepted that, but I just couldn't believe that a local Kurd would turn up in the prison, point at me, and accuse me."
I was innocent and knew that I was arrested and tortured by the secret police because I was a Kurd. Somehow, I accepted that, but I just couldn't believe that a local Kurd would turn up in the prison, point at me, and accuse me of being part of an underground movement that makes propaganda against Saddam. I really didn't believe I could ever forgive him. And then it was extraordinary by pure coincidence to come across him in this way. I really thought I would never be able to forgive him...but I did.
Some people say that Kirkuk is a "Jerusalem" for the Kurdish people and others say its significance is more about controlling the oil fields. What do you think is the importance of the city?
Perhaps the oil reserves play a big part in Kirkuk's misfortune but I think the Kurds genuinely feel that Kirkuk, historically and geographically, belongs to them. My personal belief is that Kirkuk represents true freedom for the Kurds. Kirkuk is the soul of Kurdistan. It's also a symbol of defiance against the occupiers of Kurdistan, especially Saddam, who so desperately tried to deport the Kurds from Kirkuk and keep control of its oil reserves. My village, Shoraw, used to be where Kirkuk's oilfields are, and the Ba'ath party destroyed it in 1963. My family lost everything -- their only crime was to be citizens of Kirkuk.
"I am not a nationalist in the classic meaning of the term, but I think a federal Iraq is rather an American will."
Do you see a solution to stopping the violence we see everyday in Iraq and increasingly in recent weeks in the Kurdish controlled area?
The violence is really brutal and it's a complex matter but all I can say is that the Iraqi people, I mean the majority of the innocent people, don't really deserve to have this bloody violence following the end of Saddam.
You say at the end of the film that despite the results of your symbolic ballot for and independent Southern Kurdistan, you would like to give Iraqi Kurdistan a chance to succeed under a federal system. Have your views changed since then and since a national government was formed?
I would have preferred that the Kurds didn't take part in the election at all and that they claimed an independent Southern Kurdistan. Since this was not the case and the Kurdish leadership wants federalism in Iraq, I thought, 'Let's give it a chance, you never know, miracles can happen sometimes!' I am not a nationalist in the classic meaning of the term, but I think a federal Iraq is rather an American will. The Iraqi people voted democratically, but I believe the leaders forming the new Iraqi government were appointed by the Americans long before the elections took place -- or at least some agreements were made for the formation of the new government.
The differences are huge between the Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiites, so why not accept that fact, chop the country in three and have safe borders? I hope I am wrong and that a federal Iraq will prosper, but I find it very hard to believe in that miracle.
Karzan Sherabayani is an actor and filmmaker living in London. He is currently working on a longer feature version of "Return to Kirkuk."