The following interview with Kurdish filmmaker Kazim Oz was originally published by Elizabeth Nolan in Rudaw.
Risking threats, harassment and arrest by Turkish authorities, celebrated Kurdish filmmaker Kazim Oz wrote, directed and produced Zer, the first feature film to address the 1937-1938 genocide in Dersim (Tunceli in Turkish).
With Zer receiving multiple accolades at international film festivals, it’s clear that Oz has succeeded in focusing worldwide attention on one of the 20th century’s darkest untold chapters – the Turkish government’s systematic murder of an estimated 40,000 – 70,000 Alevi Kurds and its forced relocation of countless children who were orphaned by the violence.
Against this historical backdrop, Zer traces the fictional story of Jan, a young musician who was raised as a Turkish-American in New York City. After hearing his dying grandmother sing a lilting Kurdish folksong, Jan travels to Kurdistan to unearth the harrowing secret that haunts his family and belies his true ethnic heritage.
Laced with stunning landscape cinematography and Alevi-inflected mysticism, Zer is a moving meditation on how Kurdistan’s troubled past continues to reverberate through a new diaspora generation.
In conversation with Oz recently in Zurich, Switzerland, he explained how he overcame government censorship and nearly-insurmountable political challenges to produce this haunting, soulful film.
Rudaw: You’ve been making films for over 20 years, and have directed both documentaries as well as feature films. What inspired you to write the screenplay for Zer and how long did the film take to produce?
Kazim Oz: Back in 2000, I was filming a documentary called Dûr. While Dûr was in production, I met several Kurdish elders who introduced me to a beautiful folksong called Zer. The love story that is told in the ballad immediately captured my imagination. Then several months later, a friend of mine in Germany who is originally from Dersim sang the song to me again. Hearing my friend’s voice singing that beautiful melody had a huge impact on me – so much so that the soundtrack for Dûr actually ends with the song Zer. Even after finishing the documentary, I still couldn’t get the lyrics out of my mind. Just like Jan, Zer’s lead character, I became rather obsessed with the song and spent several years researching it.
How difficult was it to complete this film, given the fraught political situation in Turkey today?
I began work on the screenplay for Zer in 2015, and altogether, the film took two and a half years to produce. During that timeframe, the political climate in Turkey changed substantially. When we started filming, Turkey was relatively peaceful and calm – we even had the support of the Ministry of Culture.
Then came the events of 2016 and 2017. By the time Zer was in post-production, political tension was running very, very high. Not only did the Ministry of Culture withdraw its support for Zer, they actively began trying to suppress the film.
As far as I know, Zer is the only film in Turkish history that was first supported and then suppressed in this manner.
How did you prepare yourself emotionally to direct the scenes that harken back to the genocide? How did you prepare your cast and crew?
Zer is a fictional film that reveals a historical truth. As I was writing the screenplay, I interviewed several Dersim survivors and heard their personal stories. From that point forward, these eyewitness testimonials were very much in the forefront of my mind. We filmed the genocidal scenes on the side of a cliff – in the exact location where the Dersim massacre actually took place. Some of the actors who participated in these scenes were very shaken afterwards. It was almost like they traveled back in time to 1938, and suddenly they understood what it would have felt like to be thrown off that cliff and dumped into the river below.
Zer makes reference to the “madmen of Dersim” and suggests that, 80 years after the genocide, the local community continues to suffer from a form of collective trauma. You grew up in Dersim. From a mental health perspective, what is the actual situation like on the ground in the province right now? Are there sufficient psychological services in place to help those who are suffering? Have there been any efforts to reconnect the forcibly-adopted children with their biological families?
We cannot really talk about professional mental health services in Dersim. First of all, the Turkish government still hasn’t fully acknowledged what happened. In 2011, then-Prime Minister Erdogan issued what was essentially a half-apology. And that half- apology has never been backed up by any services or policies.
Today the people of Dersim are basically healing themselves, through art, through storytelling and sometimes through black humor. I hope Zer will be able to play a role within this broader process of grassroots community healing.
In terms of the “lost” children of Dersim, within the last 10 years, hundreds of stories have emerged. Some of the surviving children – who are now very elderly people – are trying to find their roots. Some of the witnesses are trying to search for friends and relatives who went missing. People keep asking for a database of the children’s names. The Turkish government may have such records, but if they do, they still aren’t sharing them publicly.
Have any of the Dersim survivors, or their loved ones, seen the film? How have they reacted to it? Have you heard from any descendants of the perpetrators?
Yes and yes. Some of the victims’ descendants have seen Zer and they have told me how happy they are that Dersim’s horrible secret has finally been exposed. They also say that for them, Zer is ultimately a hopeful film, because it depicts the joy and resilience that are intrinsic to our humanity.
Zer has also been seen by the descendants of the Turkish military officers who participated in the massacre. At a screening in Aydin, I was approached by a relative of one of the perpetrators and he told me that his ancestor never really recovered from Dersim – this man had guilt in his heart until the day he died.
Zer’s opening scenes take place in New York City, and from there the narrative moves to Afyon province, in western Turkey, before continuing eastward through a series of villages in the Dersim region. Did the Turkish government allow you to film on location? Was it difficult to gain permission?
Nearly all of the scenes were filmed on location. Luckily for my crew, this wasn’t a big issue in 2015. Given the political climate today, filming in Dersim would be difficult, if not impossible.
Zer takes its name from an ancient Kurdish love song, and the entire film is peppered with references to Kurdish folklore, including fables, holiday traditions, and an achingly lovely ballad performed by Ahmet Aslan. What role does folkloric culture – whether traditional or contemporary – play in unifying the Kurdish diaspora today?
Culture has sustained the Kurds for centuries.
Without it, we would no longer exist. Kurdish culture – including and especially the Alevi tradition from the Dersim region – occupies a very unique space within in the broader Muslim world. The Turks committed genocide in the cultural stronghold of Dersim because they couldn’t Turkify or Islamicize the region. When they couldn’t kill the culture, they had to kill the people.
Linguists have often credited the “golden age” of Egyptian cinema – from the 1940s to the 1960s – for making the Egyptian vernacular of Arabic the most widely spoken and understood dialect across the Middle East. Given the multi-dialectal nature of the Kurdish language and the historical attempts by Turkey and other countries to extinguish the language altogether, what role do you think Kurdish cinema could play in the preservation of Kurmanji? How about other Kurdish dialects?
The Kurdish diaspora is spread across so many different countries, and as a reflection of this reality, contemporary Kurdish cinema is multilingual. Although I don’t expect that Kurmanji-dialect films will have such a significant impact on our language as Egyptian cinema did on Arabic, Kurdish cinema can certainly help with Kurmanji preservation. Even if the linguistic impact is smaller, this goal is still a worthy one.
Zer is a beautiful Kurdish story portrayed by a multinational cast, including Armenian, American, Kurdish, and Turkish actors. Given the historical suppression of the Kurdish language, is it difficult to find Kurdish actors today who can perform in their native tongue?
Until 10 or 15 years ago, it was actually very difficult to find Kurdish actors. Or even if you could find them, they were afraid to speak Kurdish. Nowadays it’s much easier. In fact, many popular Turkish actors and performing artists are actually Kurdish. That said, as a director I find that there are many benefits to working with non-professional actors as well. Because Kurdish culture and language have been suppressed for so long, Kurdish people find it incredibly empowering to tell their own stories. Their passion always resonates beautifully onscreen.
Within the first few minutes of Zer there is a brief love scene – quite a rarity in Kurdish cinema. Why do you think Kurdish love scenes are so uncommon onscreen? Are Kurdish directors reticent? Are Kurdish audiences conservative?
Hmmm. I think it’s unfortunate that there aren’t more love scenes in Kurdish cinema. Love is absolutely essential to life, and this absence of Kurdish love scenes doesn’t reflect our reality. Some Kurdish community leaders are conservative; in my experience, Kurdish audiences are not.
Water is considered sacred in the Alevi religion, and Zer includes several scenes that were filmed underwater, including the final montage, which takes place in the sunken, watery remains of Iksor village. Please describe what really happened in Iksor, and why were both environmental and cultural activists so enraged by the actions of the Turkish government.
Even after the genocide in 1938, the Turkish state continued its reign of terror in Dersim, but with different methods. Their goal was to disperse what remained of the local population and to destroy their sense of community. They used various tactics to send people into exile. Take education, for example. By removing young Kurdish children from their families and forcing them to attend Turkish boarding schools, the Turks were able to change their language, culture, and religious beliefs.
Another way to send people into exile was simply to withhold any sort of economic investment. People had to leave Dersim province because there were no jobs. And a third depopulation method was to make certain areas completely uninhabitable. The state built hydroelectric dams so that entire villages were submerged underwater and people had to move away. All of these things happened in Iksor.
Zer was produced with financial support from the German and Turkish governments. During post-production, you ran into difficulty when Turkey insisted upon censoring four and a half minutes of footage. Please describe the scenes that sparked the censors’ attention. How did the censorship conflict play out, and as a director, what were the most difficult choices you had to make?
When Jan, the main character, arrives in Dersim province, he walks through a village where he sees billboards and political graffiti about the massacre of 1938. It’s important to point out that both the billboards and the graffiti were already there when my crew and I arrived to shoot the scene. We didn’t create any of the images or write the slogans – we simply filmed what we saw. The censors also noted another scene in which Jan encounters some Kurdish paramilitaries in a forest, and then of course there is the footage of the massacre itself.
When the Ministry of Culture objected to these scenes, I replaced them with black footage – in the same way that you might redact a written document with a black marker. The blacked-out scenes satisfied the Ministry, and they granted me permission to show Zer at the Istanbul International Film Festival in April of 2017.
Some Kurdish community leaders are conservative; in my experience, Kurdish audiences are not
Yet every time the audience saw a blank, black screen, they started booing and protesting what was so obviously censorship. As is so often the case, censoring merely draws attention to something, rather than away from it. When the Ministry heard about the audience’s reaction, they actually withdrew their approval – in effect, they began censoring their own censorship. The upshot of all this was that Zer was subsequently pulled from 90 of 100 theatres where it was supposed to play.
Since the attempted coup in 2016, working conditions for artists in Turkey have become very oppressive – actors have been detained along with writers, painters, dancers, and musicians. How is the current political climate impacting the development of Kurdish cinema, and do you anticipate that the situation might improve any time soon?
The political situation in Turkey is spreading great fear throughout every sector of society. It’s having a chilling effect on filmmaking and every form of artistic expression. People are being taken into custody just for posting something on social media. Last week two guys were arrested simply for whistling a Kurdish tune. I’m trying to remain hopeful that this situation will improve. The fact that the ruling party is using so much violence shows us that they are weak and they have no other options left.
What advice would you give to young people, particularly young Kurds, who aspire to become filmmakers?
What makes the Kurdish situation unique is that we don’t have strong educational institutes of our own. That’s why all Kurdish students – including film students – need to think independently and educate themselves to a certain extent, particularly with regard to our history. In order to make a film that accurately portrays Kurdish reality today, you must understand our history, in all its complexity.
Zer has received numerous awards at international film festivals and is currently available for screening at cinemas and universities. If you would like to arrange a screening, please write to [email protected] For further updates on Zer, including its future DVD release and online debut, please follow Kazim Öz on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/kazimoz.
E.A. Nolan is an international writer/producer with a longstanding interest in Kurdish issues, global health and human rights. She is the author of the Kurdish children’s book Hêstirên Graniayê (Apec Förlag, 2016).