Good Kurds, Bad Kurds Film Reviews

Baltimore City Paper - April 19, 2000

" Kurds and Why"
by Lee Gardner

Documentary Explores a U.S. Policy's Split Personality

" Good Kurds, Bad Kurds"
Directed by Kevin McKiernan,

At the Charles Theatre, April 29, 2000 at 4 P.M.

Kevin McKiernan thought he could relax. It was 1991, and the veteran freelance photojournalist, returning from covering Saddam Hussein's post-Gulf War repression of Kurds in northern Iraq, had just crossed the border into southeastern Turkey. Back on NATO-controlled soil, he fell asleep in the back of his taxi.

" Suddenly there was a gun muzzle in my face," he recalls. The rude awakening came courtesy of Turkish soldiers at a roadblock. After a tense encounter, McKiernan was sent on his way. He pushed on to the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, where "there were cops all over the street and Kurds up against the wall. And I said, 'What's going on here?'"

McKiernan had stumbled onto Turkey's ongoing repression of its own Kurdish minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the country's population of approximately 63 million. A half million of Iraq's Kurdish refugees had fled to a country where, unlike in Iraq, Kurdish dress and language are outlawed and Kurds are not allowed to run their own schools or media. While Saddam Hussein had used poison gas on a Kurdish village in 1988, killing thousands, the Turkish military has evacuated and leveled hundreds of Kurdish villages, leaving 2 million people homeless. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has been fighting a guerrilla war against the Turkish army in the southeastern mountains, but even in cosmopolitan Istanbul at the opposite end of the country, Kurds and supporters of their cause live with the threat of censure, arrest, and death.

McKiernan says he was struck by "the irony of the disproportionate coverage [of the Kurdish struggle]. The same things were happening to people on both sides on the border, but only one side was getting any coverage." Back in the States, he contacted television network news outlets that he had sold stories to in past, such as ABC's Nightline, and tried to interest them in the Turkish Kurds. "They took me to lunch, patted me on the back, and told me it just wasn't on the radar," he says. Still, he couldn't let it drop.

Almost a decade later, McKiernan has turned his obsession with the story into Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friends but the Mountains, a documentary he wrote, produced, and directed that details one of the most underreported stories of the '90s. McKiernan spent a good deal of the decade hiking through the mountains with PKK guerrillas, collecting eyewitness accounts of torture and helicopter attacks, and getting the Turkish side from government spokespersons in Istanbul and Ankara, the country's capital. The film even features an interview with Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader convicted by the Turks of treason in 1999 and currently awaiting execution.

But "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds" also brings the story back to America and down to the personal level through the struggles of a family of Kurdish immigrants based in the filmmaker's hometown of Santa Barbara, Calif. One of the most compelling threads of McKiernan's story involves Kani Xu lam, a member of that family who travels to Washington to lobby Congress while he fights off U.S. government attempts to deport him back to Turkey. (Xulam's case remains unresolved; if he is eventually refused political asylum and deported, McKiernan contends, "he wouldn't survive -- there'd be no question of that at all.")

As the film makes plain, the U.S. response to pleas from Turkish Kurds has depended largely on U.S. political and economic interests. In the film, Bill Hartung of Washington, D.C.-based think tank the World Policy Institute opines that in the eyes of the Clinton administration, the Iraqi Kurds who make Saddam Hussein seem like even more of a villain are "good Kurds"; the Kurds who resist U.S. ally Turkey and its policies are "bad Kurds." Iraqi Kurds get U.S. aid; their Turkish cousins are attacked by the U.S.-supplied Turkish army.

In a way, McKiernan says, it's not surprising that the mainstream American media is only now beginning to pick up on the story. The major area of Turkish/Kurdish conflict is geographically remote, and access is limited by the Turkish government. And even as the world becomes more and more of a global village, U.S. news agencies focus less and less on international stories.

" When the Berlin Wall came down [in 1990], there was something like seven and a half minutes of foreign news" a night on network news shows, McKiernan says. "Now you get this scan of world capitals. In fact, NBC has eliminated the category of foreign news [during its nightly broadcast], saying if something is justified [for coverage] they'll go into it in depth. And all this happened during the O.J. Simpson/Monica Lewinsky era, when there was a tabloidization of news."
The Ocalan case has focused more world attention on the issue, but McKiernan is not optimistic about chances for a peaceful resolution in the near future. The Turkish government is sticking to a hard line, even though its Kurdish policy could endanger the country's proposed acceptance into the European Union. If Turkey keeps rejecting moderate solutions and keeps the pressure on its Kurdish population, McKiernan predicts, things could get even uglier.

" This has been called terrorism, but it's pretty traditional guerrilla war -- a country war," he says. But if the army continues to displace rural Kurds and force them into cities, "the Kurds will become more sophisticated as urban people, so there will be real terrorism some time in the next generation or two."

Americans are not the only ones who are relatively unaware of the plight of Turkish Kurds. After a recent screening at a film festival, McKiernan found himself debating a Turkish woman who insisted his film was "exaggerated." When he asked if she had been to the area in question, she said she had not. In addition to the war against the Kurds, the filmmaker says, in Turkey "there is also a war on information. It is illegal for Turkish press to show the funeral of a Turkish soldier, because that would confirm that there was a war going on."

As a young correspondent McKiernan covered the 1973 Native American standoff with federal authorities at Wounded Knee, S.D., and he sees parallels between the Turkish Kurd conflict and America's Indian wars. Given firsthand accounts of 19th century atrocities against the Sioux and other tribes, he says, "people back East in the 1850s wouldn't have believed it either, and they wouldn't have traveled there or seen any reason to. Yet people had a very strong opinion about what was going on out there.

" I just don't believe that the Turkish people themselves would go along with the atrocities that take place if they had any personal experience. But it's way beyond their experience and their belief. They just don't know about it."

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