A sparse, minimalist Competition entry made by an Iraqi Kurd has generated a giant buzz at the 58th Cannes Film Festival.
Hiner Saleem's Kilometer Zero, a road movie that delivers a wry comment on the tragedy that befell the Kurds of Iraq in the form of a genocide unleashed by Saddam Hussein.
It is being compared to the Paris-based Saleem's previous feature, Vodka Lemon, but the politics of the new film is clearly at variance with the anti-Bush sentiment that prevailed on the Riviera last year, with Michael Moore's hard-hitting documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 scooping up the Palme d'Or.
For the Kurds of Iraq, the US invasion of the nation represents liberation and that is exactly what the film articulates thought not quite in so many words and so simply.
Given that the jury here is headed by Emir Kusturica, a filmmaker who himself belongs to a war-ravaged part of the world (Sarajevo), it wouldn't be surprising if Saleem's simple yet moving film strikes a chord with nine-member panel.
'My film,' asserts Saleem, 'is more than just an ideological tract. I want the whole world to become aware of the plight of Iraqi Kurdistan and its people.' That is why, the filmmaker goes on to explain, my film highlights the natural beauty of Kurdistan to such an extent. 'My interest is in people, landscapes and stories. If Kilometer Zero helps the world discover my corner of the world, I would have done my job,' he adds.
Kilometer Zero - Saleem says that is a good point to begin a journey from because you can then only go forward - tells the story of a young Kurd who lives in the hills with his wife, child and a cantankerous and ailing father-in-law. He wants to flee Iraq but his wife refuses to leave as long as her ill father is alive. The male protagonist is marched off to the Army to fight the war against Iran. However much he hates the prospect, he has no choice.
His chance for escape comes when he is sent on a three-day mission to a Kurdish village to deliver the body of a slain soldier to his family. The drive through barren landscape around Basra in the company of a Kurd-hating, racist driver takes on a surrealist edge as the two men fight a mental war of attrition even as a national flag-wrapped coffin sits atop the station wagon.
Kilometer Zero, says Saleem, is not merely a story of a religious or cultural divide. 'It is an appeal for mutual trust and tolerance. I am not a religious leader. I am a lay person who is merely trying to convey a sense of what it means to live under a despotic regime,' he adds.
'All I want is that children in Kurdistan should have the freedom to grow up in their own culture, learn their own language in school, watch their own TV shows and films and listen to their own music. Sadly, Saddam Hussein tried to destroy the Kurds as a people and a nation.'
Saleem himself left Iraq when he was 17 and has been a resident of Paris for the past decade. Although he received financial support from various agencies, shooting the film in Kurdistan was no cakewalk. 'It was a nightmare carrying all the equipment to the location and then repatriating it,' he says. Filmmaking in Iraq is a struggle.
'We produce in years what France makes in just a day and India churns out in a matter of few hours,' Saleem laments. 'It is difficult finding technicians in Iraq.'
But he is hopeful that selection of his film in the Cannes Film Festival Competition will help it travel to many other parts of the world. The only way for Kilometer Zero to go now, as Saleem points out, is forward.