Good Kurds, Bad Kurds Film Reviews

The Santa Barbara Independent

Santa Barbara, California

March 2, 2000

No Way Out For Kurds
by Nick Welsh

Documentary Puts Plight of Turkish Kurds on Media Radar

It was just after the Gulf War and photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Kevin McKiernan remembers delivering "an earnest speech to about 17 spectators" at Santa Barbara's downtown library about the horrors being inflicted, then as now, upon Kurdish people living in Iraq and Turkey. At the time, there was no shortage of news about the plight of the Iraqi Kurds, and McKiernan, a longtime Santa Barbara resident, had no trouble getting his footage from Iraq shown on prime-time TV. But when it came to McKiernan's reporting on the Turkish Kurds, he was routinely turned down. "They'd tell me, "It's just not on our radar screen," he said.

Luckily for McKiernan, two Turkish Kurds, Kani Xulam and his older brother, David, happened to be at the Santa Barbara library that day. Afterward they introduced themselves and out of that chance encounter, many years later, would emerge McKiernan's powerful and disturbing documentary film, Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friends But the Mountains. In it, McKiernan manages to weave profound global questions about certain glaring contradictions in American foreign policy into a smaller but compelling story about UCSB graduate Kani Xulam and his family's exodus from Turkey to Santa Barbara. To highlight how fickle and arbitrary the arbiters of news have become, or always were, McKiernan has inserted himself into the narrative, as the reporter unable to sell his story. 

Although Kurds live in five nations, the largest single concentration, about 15 million, live in Turkey, where authorities have outlawed any and every expression of Kurdish culture, including speaking the Kurdish language. Not surprisingly, there have been 29 Kurdish revolts since Turkey became a modern nation in 1923. The most recent uprising, started in 1984, has claimed 37,000 lives. Since then, Turkish authorities have destroyed 3,700 Kurdish villages, creating a population of two million Kurdish refugees. American officials, mindful of Turkey's crucial importance to U.S. military and strategic interests, have not just turned a blind eye to such atrocities, McKiernan argues, but they've aided and abetted in the bloodletting. The United States has sold $7 billion worth of arms to Turkey in the past 10 years, and sometime next week, the Turkish government will announce which military contractor will get the $4 billion nod to build 125 attack helicopters.

Throughout the film, McKiernan cuts back and forth from interviews he conducted with Kurdish guerillas in the field and now their jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to Kani Xulam, a one-time appliance salesman and UCSB graduate, who has since become a remarkably effective advocate for Kurdish rights. With a devastatingly radiant smile and large, sad eyes, Xulam moved to Washington, D.C. shortly after hearing that his village in Turkey had been destroyed by military helicopters. Though only a one-man operation, Xulam has managed in short order to raise enough uncomfortable questions about human right in Turkey that 153 members of Congress signed a resolution demanding something be done. In addition, Xulam opened a website, which among other things contains gruesome photos of Turkish soldiers holding aloft the decapitated heads of Kurdish rebels. 

The Turkish government has denounced Xulam as a terrorist agent working for Ocalan and his PKK party. (While Amnesty International has charged PKK with killing and kidnapping innocent civilians, it has blamed most of the torture and violence on the Turkish government.) Xulam now faces possible deportation because the State Department tipped off UC officials that Kani Xulam and his brother David entered the United States with false passports, applied for admission under false pretenses and obtained student aid under false pretenses. Three years ago, a team of 12 heavily armed federal agents stormed Xulam's Washington, D.C. headquarters and placed him under arrest. When his case went to trial, however, Xulam so impressed the judge that he was ordered to continue agitating for the Kurds as part of his sentence.

Federal authorities were not so moved. The immigration officials investigating his case found no evidence that Xulam was a terrorist; they did conclude that he had a very well-founded belief that he'd be subject to political persecution should he return to Turkey. Even so, higher-ranking immigration officials are pushing for Xulam's deportation.

Good Kurds, Bad Kurds reveals McKiernan as a natural storyteller whose abiding sense of moral outrage is more felt than stated. The most damning moments of the film involve a handful of State Department officials, who seek to distinguish in some way the pain suffered by the Kurds of the title, from the pain suffered at the hands of the Iraqis, the "good Kurds." It's not what they say that makes one squirm, so much as the look on their faces. It's clear that not even they believe what they're saying.

Good Kurds, Bad Kurds has already been nominated by Project Censored, run out of Sonoma State, as one of the most under-reported stories of the year. It will also receive the Film Festival's first-ever Human Rights Award. And in addition to the screening on Sunday, March 5 at the Fiesta Five Theatres at noon, a second showing has been scheduled at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on March 11 at 7 p.m. 



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