Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
A Review by David Finkelstein.
In Dream City, a short feature, American filmmaker Emma Piper-Burket documents her friendship with Diana Jaf, a young Kurdish Iraqi woman. The footage, informally shot with handheld video and film cameras as the two young women hang out together, go hiking with friends, and talk intimately, comes from two periods. In 2014, Diana is living in Erbil, training to be an airline flight attendant. Iraqi Kurdistan is the most prosperous and stable part of the country. We see multiple construction sites of new buildings going up, in between a few ruined or impoverished areas. Diana’s biggest problem seems to be a broken curling iron, and the elaborate make-up regimen demanded by the airline.
In 2016, the return of the war with ISIL and disruptions in the country prompt Diana to move in with her mother in Sulaymaniyah. Quite rapidly, the Kurdish regional government’s approach to fighting ISIL has caused the economy to crash, and the autocratic government has become even more repressive and mistrusted. There is no more talk of the airline job, or any job. Enforced idleness (plus frequent power blackouts) lead naturally to deep depression, and Diana spends much of each day sleeping. Underneath, as we learn from her conversations with Piper-Burket, she is deeply frustrated and angry, and longs above all to be able to afford a visa and leave the country for good.
Dream City, by showing us the everyday life of a young, apolitical woman, fills a unique space, completely missing from Western depictions of Iraq (and much of the Middle East). What images we do receive from Iraq depict war, suffering, conflict, and resistance. What we never see is the texture and feeling of ordinary life that goes on despite the region’s conflicts, among the majority of people not motivated by religious fanaticism or even strong political passions.
The social position of women in Iraqi Kurdistan which we see is different from the West, but not as extreme as some propaganda would lead us to believe. Street scenes show some women with covered hair and some women bareheaded, both completely acceptable. Diana’s biggest daydream is to become an actress, which she conceives of as a chance to escape into the fantasy world of films and to attract more attention, but she does mention that such a career would have strong social disapproval from male family members.
At one point, the two women visit a UN tent camp for refugees, a visible reminder of the millions of people who have recently been displaced there, many moving from elsewhere in Iraq to the relative safety of Kurdistan. The kids in the camp are quite excited by a visit from two young women with film cameras. Quite soon, Diana asks to leave, because the camp brings back extremely unpleasant memories of staying in such a camp herself as a young child.
Piper-Burket, in her effort to depict the rhythm and texture of ordinary life, sometimes goes too far. For example, the film ends with a very long nighttime sequence in which the viewer cannot see or hear anything clearly, which only serves to show us that in Iraq, like everywhere else, it is dark at night. On the other hand, much of the film is suffused with the extraordinary closeness that develops between the two women. In the exceedingly complicated history of US/Kurdish relations, Kurds have often viewed the US (with justification) as being guilty of repeated betrayals of trust, so this intimate friendship between an American woman and a Kurdish woman stands out as an example of the power of a humanist worldview. So does the film’s foregrounding of ordinary, lived experience. By depicting the frustrated dreams of a young woman living in difficult circumstances, Dream City goes a long way towards making life in Iraqi Kurdistan more real for Western audiences.