Half Moon, an absolutely wonderful film directed by Bahman Ghobadi, and with a cameo appearance by Hedye Tehrani, is a story about borders. Borders between countries and borders between life and death. The entire film takes place on the borderlands (or, perhaps, no-man’s-lands) between Turkey, Iraq and Iran. There are times when the border is nothing but a ditch with great mountainous plains stretching out on either side. Terribly dangerous, but there’s not a border patrol in sight. The feeling of how artificial it is is palpable, borders superimposed by the powers-that-be, leaving the Kurds homeless and stuck in the middle. What is a border? Isn’t it sometimes silly? That is one of the overriding feelings I got watching Half Moon, watching Mamo, a famous Kurdish singer who has been living in exile in Iran, and his multitude of sons, try to get back into Iraqi Kurdistan for a concert. It is as though being Kurdish is a deadly secret. Border guards in Iran, who have been speaking Farsi all along, pull Mamo aside and whisper in Kurdish, “I’m Kurdish, Mamo …” Mamo is a hero to them. His return to Kurdistan is a huge deal, a political event. The Kurds don’t belong anywhere, but their sense of identity and nationhood is actually stronger than many who belong to actual recognized nations. Isn’t that always the way. Nothing like a little oppression to solidify a people’s identity.
Half Moon is modeled after Mozart’s “Requiem”, and while much of the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed (coffins, death, open graves), I think it works. Because again, we’re in a borderland. It is not a realistic film. We are in the borderland between dreaming and waking states. There are times when we’re not sure that what we’re looking at is actually real. Is this really happening, or is it in Mamo’s head? Or was it a dream? None of it ends up mattering, because as Mamo approaches death (he is an old old man, he has sons who are in their 50s and 60s), his consciousness begins to turn towards the afterworld. He knows it is coming. He can feel it. He can almost hear it. There are moments, in the middle of busy crowd scenes, when you can tell that Mamo is hearing something. An approach. Someone, or something, coming to “get” him.
Half Moon takes place in the wake of the fall of Saddam. Saddam’s genocidal campaigns against the Kurds are well-known, and so Mamo (played heartbreakingly by Ismail Ghaffari) has lived away from his homeland for almost 40 years. He was (and still is) a famous musician, but the wars against Kurdish culture were just as devastating as the actual wars. Kurdish music banned, singers fled to the four corners of the earth, or imprisoned, or exiled. Saddam Hussein is now gone, and although the war still rages (as someone shouts across the border, “The Americans are shooting at everything that moves!”), Mamo and his sons, all musicians as well, are called back to “Iraqi Kurdistan” to give a concert of traditional Kurdish music. It will be a joyous celebration, a rebirth of cultural confidence, a keening cry of freedom.
Mamo is old. Such a journey (in a beat-up school bus) will be dangerous and arduous. But if he does one last thing in his life, it will be this concert. He has waited so long. Even though one of his sons pulls him aside and tells him that the village wiseman has warned Mamo not to go, Mamo will not turn back. He shouts at the jagged mountains, “Who wants to stop me?” Ismail Ghaffari has no other credits to his name. I would imagine he is probably a musician – but his acting here is breathtaking. He is a determined old man, sometimes bossy, and sometimes haunted. He is afraid of death (aren’t we all?), and he is afraid that it will come before he reaches Kurdistan. His emotional isolation is total. We all die alone. But it is his job to keep the group together, to keep them focused on the task at hand. His face is cracked with wrinkles, his eyes glitter – sometimes with deep love and gentleness, other times with rage, or fear. It’s a marvelous performance and there were a couple of moments when he brought me to tears.
Bahman Ghobadi, the director, has said that if he didn’t get into film, he would have been a musician. This is one of the most produced of Iranian films I have seen … in terms of the sound design. The music is omnipresent (oh, for a soundtrack!), and there are beautiful scenes of the bus traveling through the mountains, with Mamo and his sons playing their traditional instruments, as the fearsome landscape whizzes by outside. Just beautiful.
I began to think, as I watched this film, My God, it is art that holds us together. As Camille Paglia wrote once, (and I’m paraphrasing, sorry): “If we ever meet beings from another planet and want to show them who we are, it is by our art that we will want to be known.” There is no official “Kurdistan”, and even though Saddam is gone, the future of the Kurds is in flux. But the music survives, and it survives in the musicians. They have not been allowed to perform their traditional music in 40 years, but cultural memory is a long long thing. The body does not forget its origins. There is a reason why Mamo is so revered, and along the way, in villages and hillsides, whoever they meet, runs up to Mamo to kiss him, or get his autograph. It is because he contains the cultural memory of Kurdistan. Not just “contains” it, but embodies it. He is the embodiment of their hopes, dreams, wishes, and memories.
As they travel along, they pick up all of his different sons along the way.
There are a couple of stand-out scenes where – like in The Day I Became A Woman (my review here) – the landscape itself seems to turn into something mystical. I saw things in Half Moon that I never saw before. Like I mentioned in my review for The Day I Became A Woman, you become used to seeing the same old things in movies, even good movies. Streets, apartments, closeups, beautiful trees and ocean, but then you come across a scene that is totally and completely original, and you realize: Wow, there really IS something new under the sun. I love film-making like that. Needless to say, I am not talking about CGI. I am talking about the apartment on the white beach in The Day I Became A Woman, with the bed and the refrigerator standing on the white sand. I am talking about the traveling band of hippie mimes in Blow Up, playing tennis with an imaginary ball. Amazing scene. Mysterious, beautiful, unexplainable. I watch and I can struggle with what it “means”, I can think about it, ponder it … but in the end, what is so amazing about these moments is how they look. A movie becomes a painting. A movie becomes a dream-space. It’s not a realistic medium anyway, it is necessarily subjective. I love it when a filmmaker has the confidence to not just realize that, but to utilize it. It takes guts and a personal visiom.
At one point, Mamo stops off to pick up his daughter who is going to be his female singer in the concert. Because she is a relative, traveling with the men will be allowed. (Don’t get me started. Or, all right, get me started. Half Moon takes a delicate stance here – but there are moments in the film, poetic moments, which have as much anger as a feminist manifesto. But it is all in context of the story – which is tremendously important. Remember that Iranian filmmakers work under strict censorship, so they have to be very tricky in how they get their point across. But the situation not just of women in Iran, but of performers, is one of the themes of Half Moon. It is the female voice that can raise the male from the dead – this is Mamo’s view, and his experience. He cannot perform without the “celestial voice” of the female. But obstacles pile up in his way – stupid bureaucrats, rigid mullahs, cultural bullshit – that says women are not supposed to perform on stage. Or with men who aren’t relatives. Or … basically do anything besides be a submissive wife and bear lots of sons. But the females in Half Moon are not just “celestial voices”, but – at the end – transcendent angels of mercy – tapped into some chord in the earth that men can never hear.
But men need them. A woman can help the man hear that chord. She is necessary to him. Bahman Ghobadi is amazing in how he puts this into the film, and lets it just sit there. The censors were probably too dumb and too literal to pick up on it.)
Mamo’s daughter is a schoolteacher, and her village was submerged in a flood. Everyone lost their homes, and the school was destroyed. So she has now set up a school, with desks and all, on the side of a hill, and that is where Mamo finds her, when he comes to pick her up to take her to Kurdistan. This is what I am talking about: it is a brief scene. Mamo’s daughter cannot leave to go to the concert, she knows she is leaving her father in the lurch, but the schoolchildren need her. They all seem to be girls, in vibrant different colored chadors, sitting quietly at desks ranged across the hillside, with snow-capped mountains in the background. It’s an incredible image. It stops the heart to some degree. There is no “meaning”, it is just beauty and poetry. I loved it. Mamo’s daughter senses, she just senses, that she will not see her father again. They embrace, and she weeps. But Mamo must go on.
And now he has an idea. He needs a woman. He needs a singer. A famous Kurdish singer named Hesho has been imprisoned with 1334 other “woman singers” in a village carved into a mountainside. They have been exiled there. Who knows why. For performing with men other than a relative, for performing at all, for performing Kurdish music which was not allowed … who knows. Hesho has a “celestial voice” and is, in her way, as famous as Mamo. All of Mamo’s sons try to talk Mamo out of going to ‘get” Hesho. It is illegal, first of all. She has no permit. She is not allowed to travel with them. They all could be arrested. Mamo doesn’t care. It is her voice he wants, he needs. Perhaps, on some level, he hopes that her voice will raise him from the spectre of death.
Watching the approach to the “village of exiled singers” is one of the most amazing pieces of film-making I’ve ever seen. Mamo approaches from afar, and it’s almost difficult to see the village, since it’s built into the rock. And in the distance, you can hear the singing voices, echoing through the mountains. All female. A celestial sound indeed. Mamo’s son asks, “Who is that singing?” Mamo answers, “It is all 1334 singers. They might as well just be one singer.” A truly potent evocation of cultural warfare and the results thereof. It took my breath away. Reminds me of Stella Adler’s great instruction to actors and artists: “It is not that important to know who you are. It is important to know what you do, and then do it like Hercules.” What happens when what you do is illegal? What happens when you are not allowed to do it like Hercules? Not just not allowed, but imprisoned? To hear the celestial voices of the women floating out of the mountainside village is to ache for everyone oppressed everywhere. But Ghobadi, again, does not hammer you over the head with it. He remains in the context of his story, which is tremendously important. All you need to do is to see the village and hear the women singers, and know that they have been imprisoned there … and that’s all you need. You don’t need to add anything. As Mamo enters the village, to go get Hesho, all of the women who have heard of his approach – stand on ceremony. They stand on rooftops, on walls, they do not move or speak. They each hold huge drums, but they do not play. Not yet. It is a ceremonious return. He is a hero to them. He has become their voice. My God. It’s such a moving and amazing scene. And, at some unseen cue, all of the women, as one, start to beat on their drums, and sing. It’s a sound to make the hair on the back of your neck rise up. It makes sense, if you think like a mullah, that these women would be banished from society. Because if they were allowed to play like that all the time, it would be cause for revolt. In and of themselves, the sounds those women make have one underlying scream: FREEDOM. Dangerous. Mamo strolls through, and then walks back out – with Hesho at his side, a beautiful sad-faced woman with long grey braids. The exiled women crowd around them, making a corridor for them to walk through, banging on their drums, and singing. They cannot leave, they are still imprisoned – but Hesho will represent. Hesho will sing for them.
Hesho is a small part played by the exquisite Hedye Tehrani. More thoughts on her here and here. I strongly urge you to look up this woman’s work and experience it. She’s a giant star in Iran, and her films very often make it to the international film circuit – she’s as big as they come in Iran – but you know, her cache as an actress is definitely not that she is a household name to us in the “West” (which always makes me laugh because if you look at the earth, east and west are all just a matter of perspective – depends on where you are standing, I mean seriously). But she should be known to all of us. She’s doing wonderful deep-felt work.
The journey takes many twists and turns, some tragic, some comedic, and Mamo begins to lose faith that they will ever get there. Larger forces appear to be at work, nation-states, languages (you must speak Farsi, not Kurdish, etc.), warfare … all gathering together to stop the concert from going on. It seems insurmountable. Not to mention the fact that every time they are stopped by a policeman or a border guard, Hesho must climb into the crawlspace beneath the floorboards, hiding from detection. A direct reference to Mamo’s death-dreams, and his haunting image of himself looking up out of a coffin. Ghobadi makes that connection explicit. Mamo, an old man, trapped by his own approaching death. Hesho, a woman, and that is her only crime.
The film strikes a lovely balance between comedy and serious drama. The guy who drives the bus, who is filming the entire journey in the hopes that he can sell the tape to Kurdish television, is hysterical. Kind of a buffoon but with a heart so big you want to tell him to protect it a little bit more. I also love the one son who breaks out his laptop throughout the journey, to email so-and-so, or to look up a better way to get there on the Iraqi version of Mapquest. They all have Yahoo email accounts and they chat about them. “I’m at Mamokurdistan@yahoo.com …” Messing with our preconceived notions. I always love that.
The last 20 minutes of the film were shattering for me to watch. Maybe because of where I am at right now in my life. But I was mopping the tears off of my face.
Bravo, Ismail Ghaffari, Mister actor with no credits … You absolutely killed me. My desire to see that concert, to have everyone arrive safely, to have it “all work out”, was so intense I could barely watch the end of the film. As death comes closer, breathing on the back of Mamo’s neck, he begins to hear the music. The celestial chords of his own requiem.
Some of the more spectacular imagery from the film below: