At 1pm and 6pm on January 18, at Lincoln Center, the New York Jewish Film Festival will premiere my critically acclaimed film, Peshmerga, in the United States as its centerpiece presentation.
For me, this will surely be a very emotional and momentous occasion. Allow me to share why.
This whole story started in March 2015. I brought six Peshmerga commanding officers to Elysée Palace in Paris. Men who struck me by their determination, courage, solitude and position in the heart of the combat on the frontline in the global war against the so-called Islamic State. The minute they arrived, they wanted to go straight to the Bataclan to pay their respects and then to the Hypercacher kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes.
We spent hours discussing how to counter this rapidly expanding terrorist threat. And the idea came up that, even if ISIS is a force that can strike anywhere at any time by surprise, and that even if this new enemy is most often elusive and invisible, there is a place in this world where it has its bases, its commanders, its training and command camps and back bases ― and that, there it is within reach of attack. That place was the “Islamic State.”
With me, I had some of the “Peshmergas” (literally: “those who stand in the face of death”) who were physically involved in the combat against those assassins. That’s how the idea came about to go and meet these legendary warriors to share, as much as possible, their hopes, their dreams, their daily lives, their fight. And in order to do that, we would follow the long frontline that, from the south to the north, from the border with Iran to the border with Syria, runs a thousand kilometers and separates them from the jihadis. And based on this journey, we would make a film.
Our agreement was clear. I wanted to see everything. I wanted to record everything. I wanted access to the command rooms, operating theaters, outposts. I wanted to be right in the midst of things, as close as possible to the attacks. And with no restrictions whatsoever, I would tell the story of what I would see.
The Peshmergas gave me their trust. So from early July 2015 to the end of November, they made it possible for me and my team to follow them. We didn’t do the journey all in one go, of course. There were breaks; we went back and forth to Paris, returned to certain places. There were moments where our desire to understand and our love for this people whose spirit and history we were learning of led us to go out of our way to meet, for example, a Dominican priest saving Aramaic manuscripts, to see the tomb of a biblical prophet or an army doctor carrying out an operation.
But on the whole, we filmed along the length of this 1000 kilometer frontline. We filmed the strategists drawing up their plans of attack; the captains exhorting their troops to be disciplined and courageous; we filmed six battles; we filmed the faces of hundreds of men and women volunteers of a war they hadn’t wanted, that they do not like but that they are winning. All of these images are ours and this road movie tells the story of what we experienced.
I say “We.” I say it here, but also in the narrative that accompanies the film. Because, if a film is always, as a matter of principle, a collective adventure, this one is more so than any other.
The point of view expressed is mine, of course. The opinions expressed are also mine. I’m obsessed by the idea of an “Enlightened Islam,” which I’ve been seeking ever since I came of age, and that I have never come so close to seeing as here in this mainly Muslim land where Christians from the plains of Nineveh are taken in and protection is given to the Yazidis; and where the people are so proud to show the last traces of the Jews that ethnic and religious purification of the region has not managed to erase.
But for the rest, there is not a sound, not an image, not a scene of this film that does not belong, fully, to those who made it with me. Especially the great team of three cameramen (Olivier Jacquin, Camille Lotteau, Ala Tayyeb) reduced to two when the third was seriously injured while filming. I greatly appreciated this teamwork. I was very touched by the camaraderie it brought about and that I know will last beyond the film. It’s very moving when, from behind your camera, you witness the liberation of a town, the emancipation of populations from suffering and the recovery of a companion who fell victim to a mine; the violence of a battle that only the Peshmergas’ sang-froid prevented from being the most deadly; or the spiritual resistance of the last monks of Mar Mattai holding out under the watchful eyes of the barbarians.
And so, from this journey comes a logbook in images that offers a privileged view of a war that is unfinished but whose stakes are of global importance. The Kurdish fighters, on film, show unfailing determination in their fight against obscurantism and jihadi fundamentalism. They are men and women of an ilk one rarely encounters.
Tickets for the January 18th screenings at 1pm and 6pm are available here.