Revolutionary Iranian-Kurdish town brought back to life in film “Big Village”
Dutch-Kurdish filmmaker Beri Shalmashi was too young to remember the revolutionary fervour of the Iranian-Kurdish village of Gewrede, in the Iraqi Kurdistan mountains, where she spent two years as a young child.
The village was founded by peshmerga fighters of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) - an armed leftist group seeking self-determination for Kurds - but it was bombed to smithereens in the 1980s by the Iranian armed forces and its inhabitants were scattered around the world.
But in her new interactive online documentary “Big Village”, Shalmashi has, together with historian and director Lyangelo Vasquez, recreated Gewrede and explored its significance for the Kurdish movement, and herself, through interviews, footage, and photos.
As Shalmashi reflected on her latest film with Ahval from her home in Amsterdam, the bombs were again falling on the mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan. In the years that she lived in Gewrede - Kurdish for “Big Village” - Iranian fighter jets were dropping bombs there. Now, Turkey is dropping the bombs in the same region but, essentially, that doesn’t make much difference, she said.
“Both Iran and Turkey still feel the urge to bomb the Kurdish mountains. Why? Because of the relative success of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and because there are people in the mountains that keep the fire for a free Kurdistan burning,” she said.
The first steps towards making “Big Village” were taken five years ago. Shalmashi was asked to contribute to a podcast about the life of refugees before they became refugees. She realised she had no memories of that time in her life and had never really talked about it with her father - her mother passed away years ago.
Of course, she knew a little about Gewrede. Many Iranian Kurds had supported the 1979 revolution because it had given them hopes of a degree of autonomy but the theocratic regime that emerged did not tolerate independently-minded Kurds and some were forced to leave Iran, including Shalmashi’s family.
But Shalmashi couldn’t picture the place, she couldn’t feel it, she couldn’t dig into her memories because she had just been too young at the time.
The project evolved and turned into an interactive documentary with interviews, images, maps, and footage that survived the three-and-a-half decades that has passed since Gewrede’s glory days.
Viewers can just let the documentary play and run its course, but they can also swipe across the screen and click locations - a picnic field, the radio room, the edge of the camp, and more - and explore the village, houses and other buildings. The interviews bring back memories of building the village, of the countless bombings by Iran, of the school and of broadcasting the Kurdish voice via radio.
All the locations have been drawn by illustrator Suzan Mijink in black and white and in different seasons. Details come to life, for example, in the interview with Mardin Heja Baban, who is the same age as Shalmashi and who has dozens of pictures of them together as little kids; including them sitting in the snow in thick, bright pink clothes.
One of the few things Baban managed to keep after the family had to leave Gewrede was a soft toy elephant. Shalmashi and Baban only found out as adults that they still owned the same elephants, and for Shalmashi it was one of the few things she still has from those first years of her life. As you look around the surroundings of the Baban family’s backyard in the interactive documentary, you see two little elephants lying on the floor.
Shalmashi explained that it was not her intention to recreate Gewrede as accurately and in as much detail as possible. The drawings of the locations are rather simple.
“Everybody’s memories are different and it’s impossible to draw an exact picture of what it looked like,” she said. “That’s also not what ‘Big Village’ is about. I want to give an impression, I want to loosen the imagination.”
When asked about Gewrede’s significance for the Kurdish movement, Shalmashi replied: “There was a total dedication to the cause of a free Kurdistan. Such a dedication that you are willing to give everything for the struggle. The adrenaline, the sacrifice, the togetherness, not having anything but being self-sufficient and happy.”
Several interviewees even told Shalmashi that they considered their years in Gewrede to be the happiest in their lives. “This was around five years after the 1979 revolution in Iran,” Shalmashi explained. “They had seen that a revolution was possible and they wanted to create a new turnaround. Anything seemed possible.”
It is a big contrast with the situation now. Gewrede has ceased to exist but the KDPI is still present in the mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan, currently based in Koya.
“The base in Koya isn’t as big as Gewrede was. The atmosphere now breathes nostalgia about what it was like to be a peshmerga,” Shalmashi said. “They go to the mountains in shifts, they have their training, and from the camp they can see Iran - and Iran can see them. They feel the enemy breathing down their necks. That’s important to stay relevant: If you are not visible, you don’t matter.”
It is a feeling that is haunting several former revolutionaries of Gewrede, Shalmashi explained. She takes the ‘radio man’ of Gewrede, Ahmed Sherbagui, as an example.
“At the time, halfway through the 1980s, everybody in Kurdistan and abroad knew his voice. When his broadcasts started, millions of Kurds stopped what they were doing and listened to him. Now, he lives in Switzerland, where nobody knows who he is,” she said.
The same feeling of abandonment overwhelmed Shalmashi when she visited ‘the new Gewrede’ in Koya.
“You can wonder if Gewrede and its resistance failed,” Shalmashi said. “It was founded heroically and disappeared, but then again, it didn’t. It was replaced and in Koya I saw the remnants of the fire of the struggle. Through my diaspora-Kurdish eyes, I felt sorry for them. They seemed to be stuck. I wondered if it made sense to keep the flame alive.”
But making the film has answered that question for her, Shalmashi said.
“Yes, it is important to pass on the torch to the next generation. I am actually very grateful for their persistence,” she said. “As long as there are people in the mountains who believe there is a chance for a liberated Kurdistan, whether it is the KDPI or the guerrillas of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) or of any other party, there is hope.”
Some months after Shalmashi and the film crew had visited the area for their research, in 2018, Iran bombed Koya. Several people Shalmashi had talked to for the film died. She dedicated “Big Village” to them. But however tragic and infuriating the bombing was, it also made something clear, according to Shalmashi.
“They are still relevant. They even recruited new members after that bombing,” she said.
The imagination about Gewrede’s glory days will be stirred among those watching and interacting with the documentary, and it has also triggered Shalmashi’s own imagination as well.
“My image of those days is now complete enough to have some grip on it,” she said. “Gewrede remains an echo from the past, but it is a tangible echo now.”