Around 2007 I had the idea of making a feature film about a German woman who is kidnapped in Iraq. It was supposed to be a chamber piece, shot on two intradiegetic cameras: the video camera of the abductors, with which they alternately monitor their hostages and make propaganda videos, and the video camera with which the Federal Intelligence Service agent documents his interrogation of the hostages after their release. The title was going to be The Monotheistic Cell, aligning a theological and a secret service space.
At about the same time my college friend Ravin was planning to make a feature film in northern Iraq. I used the opportunity and traveled there with him to help with the film’s preparations. The Ministry of Culture of the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government of the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq) had agreed to fund Ravin’s project, but only on condition that money also came from Europe. I was supposed to play the German producer (or at least his representative) who was interested in putting money into the project and for this reason wanted to look into local locations, logistics, and so forth.
The Kurdish region in Iraq is mainly divided between two parties: the PDK in the north and west, and the PUK in the east (with the city of Süleymania). The PUK split off from the KDP in the 1970s, taking the intellectuals with them. On a European political scale the PUK would be more social-democratic and statist, the PDK more conservative and neo-liberal. On the current political scale of the region the PUK belongs more to the Shiite block, the PDK more to the Sunni. This doesn’t always have to do with religious denomination: on this scale Russia is also reckoned to the Shiite block.
Halabja has just under 60,000 inhabitants, and lies south of Süleymaniya on the Iranian border. Towards the end of the Iran–Iraq War, PUK units from Iran took Halabja in March 1988 and promised to protect the population, who wanted to flee from the advancing Iraqi troops. On the following day the Iraqi air force bombarded Halabja with poison gas. Some 6,000 people died. Ravin’s film was going to be about the after-effects of this massacre, telling a love story between a woman from Halabja and a returned expatriate.
We paid our courtesy visit to the head of the PUK in Halabja. In my role as German producer I had prepared a short speech—international understanding, etc. The PUK chief said he was glad to meet such a nice German here in Halabja, as ultimately the martyrdom of the city was carried out with German know-how.
The memorial stands just outside Halbja. Large panels bearing the names of all who died in the attack, along with images, a park, rooms for school groups, and so on. The memorial was a black ruin, however. It had been set on fire by demonstrating residents of Halabja a year previously. Perhaps they weren’t keen on the PUK and PDK imagining the incursion of horror into their reality as the foundation myth of the incipient Kurdish state. According to the PUK it was Islamists who wanted to drag the remembrance into the dirt. A little further south, around 2003, was the territory of the Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish group allied with al-Qaida who had set up a nucleus of an Islamic state in the power vacuum. The PUK persuaded their American allies to bomb the camps.
The financing of my film project dragged on. Funds were initially promised, then withdrawn; co-producers enthusiastically came on board, only to disembark in frustration, and in the end I fell out with my main producer. My current producer Mehmet and I revived the project in 2014. Mehmet is a Turkish Kurd, and his company mîtos film has offices in the FRG (Kreuzberg) and the KRG (Dohuk).
But the situation in northern Iraq had changed in the meantime: now there were three nation-building projects competing with one another. The KRG was still taking its road into a neo-liberal, feudalistic independence. In the west, Rojava had formed in the course of the Syrian civil war as a post-national project of the PYD with a federal, socialist orientation. In the south the Salfist, jihadi Islamic State had established itself, and is called “pre-modern” by people who don’t understand modernity. At the latest since the taking of Mossul by the Islamic State, my previous concept had become meaningless. But with a semi-financed and more or less completely researched project I was in a position to react quickly to this historical situation and transfer the thing into the “arthouse agent film” that was anyway Mehmet’s preference, and with which we could complete the financing. A broadcaster’s condition was that we choose a title different from The Monotheistic Cell. A pity really, because the film is based on two texts: the didactic play The Decision, by Brecht, about an illegal cell that has to sacrifice a “young comrade,” and the myth in which God tests Abraham by demanding the sacrifice of his son.
In March 2015 Mehmet and the actor and director Hussein shot a film in Dohuk. Resherba is about a young Yezidi woman from the Shingal Mountains who is abducted by the IS but after enslavement and liberation is able to return to her family, who are now living in a large refugee camp near Dohuk. The film team put up several tents in the camp as locations, but then went over to renting tents from the camp’s inhabitants, as they simply looked more realistic.
In one scene the mother, who is baking bread, sees her daughter making her way along the camp’s muddy path. The other (real) refugees come out of their tents and watch the scene. Many of the spectators are young women, among them most probably several who had been prisoners of the Islamic State.
With Helket we traveled west from Dohuk. Helket grew up near Dohuk as a pious Muslim. At sixteen he read Sartre more or less by chance. This saved him, he says. Since them Helket has been an atheist, and is now a playwright and theater director.
Above the reservoir we crossed the Tigris and headed south until we reached Zummar. Zummar is a Kurdish-Arab town, most of whose Arab residents cooperated with the IS, we are told. Many buildings have been destroyed; the town was only liberated two months previously. The collaborators have disappeared with the IS fighters. In Zummar we get to know Newroz, who is the commander of the Asaish in the region.
Essentially there are two security apparatuses in the KRG: the Peshmerga, the army that grew out of the guerilla organization, and that primarily fights on the outer borders; the Asaish, which is responsible for inner security and mans the checkpoints, for example. And there’s the Parastin, the secret service.
Between March 2015 and June 2016 I was often in Newroz’s office. I couldn’t communicate directly with Newroz, as I haven’t learned Kurdish and all my Arabic can do is amuse my hosts. There are always a few men in civilian clothes in Newroz’s office, often Arabs, probably informers. They are given tea and sit in silence. The television shows the Kurdish news channel, which at the time was mostly reporting live from the front. A field commander is interviewed. His men are gathered behind him, and one by one they brandish their phones and make calls and at some point wave wildly into the camera. Now the families on the phone have turned on their televisions. The construction kit for the feedback channel from the front.
Newroz gives us permission to travel to Rabi’a, a small Arab town on the Syrian border. In March 2015 Rabi’a was still a ghost town, having only just been liberated by the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. The population had not yet returned. The only occupants were the Kurdish security forces and a few large feral dogs. On the walls there were YPG/YPJ and PKK graffiti, mostly crossed out and corrected with “PDK.” The YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel—People’s Defense Units) and YPJ (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin—Women’s Defense Units) are sister militias of the PKK in Syria. They had taken Rabi’a together with the Peshmerga (who are under the control of the PDK here), and then retreated back to the Syrian side. I kept on telling the Peshmerga who accompanied us through the ghost town what a fantastic film set it was. They nodded in agreement. Helket began many of his sentences with “When Islam came,” and what had incisively changed through this. But Islam already came sometime in the seventh century? No, he meant the Islamic State.
The scenes in Resherba in which YPJ units free the young Yezidi woman were shot in Zummar. People fired wildly for a whole night. Because there is no lack of weapons in Iraq, the procurement of the necessary props doesn’t present a problem, although armorers tend to be uncommon on Iraqi film sets. Everyone brings her own Kalashnikov, which are loaded with blanks. The Asaish kept an eye on us, to avoid trouble with the locals (not all of whom can be trusted). Then it was time to fire the rocket launcher, and did I want to come? I get into the vehicle, the women playing the YPJ fighters (who really had been YPJ fighters) beside me with the rocket launcher on their laps. The thing is fired and filmed outside the town, then we return to the set. It’s already very late; everybody is tired. The Asaish Kalashnikovs, with live ammunition, lie not so far away from those of the actors, with blanks.
The next time I was in Rabi’a was in Septembeer 2015. The population had returned in the meantime. It turned out that the commander of the Peshmerga was a school friend of Hussein Hassan, the director of Resherba. I asked the commander if I could travel to the Syrian border. No problem: we climbed onto some trucks and drove across the disused Baghdad railway to an outpost, where the Peshmerga immediately took up position. And over there is Syria? No, but the region was once under the control of the IS. We keep watch here. It was an emplacement set up for foreign journalists.
Commander Newroz in Zummar is a cousin of Adil, by the way. Adil is an actor, and was for a time the head of the Cinema Foundation of Dohuk and knows everyone in the KRG. Like Newroz, his brothers and cousins are all important officers in either the Peshmerga or the Asaish or other special units. One brother is the Peshmerga commander in the national parliament. A cousin controls the Mossul dam.
In November 2015 Adil wanted to help me look for locations. Because the Russians had just started to send medium-range missiles to Syria, and because their flight path went very close to the airport in Erbil, the facility had been closed. Cameraman Jürgen was still in Berlin. And Silke, my set designer, was stuck in Istanbul. So Adil and I did the best we could. When I asked Adil if he knew of a basement that we could stage as a torture chamber, he thought for a long while before saying, “Hey, why don’t we use the basement where I was tortured?” Adil was interrogated at the age of nineteen by the secret service. In the headquarters of the Ba’ath Party in Dohuk, which is now a university building. “We’ve turned the sites of Ba’athi oppression into centers for culture and education.” The porter led us to the basement rooms, which were still in their original condition. The intention was to turn them into a museum or something similar later, but for now they were just storerooms. Adil went through the basement and remembered, “Here they started to lay into me. Here they pulled a hood over my head, and then the whole program: beatings, electric shocks.” And, “So this is how it looks” (because he had been hooded). Adil wasn’t particularly moved or affected by coming back to the place where he had been tortured. But his memories deceived him. The room, despite its maximum authenticity, wasn’t really suitable for a shoot.
In my film Adil plays “Omar,” an Arab former Ba’athi secret service officer who is incarcerated by the Americans after the invasion by the “Coalition of the Willing” in 2003. There he comes into contact with prisoners linked to al-Qaida, then returns to the parallel power structures of the clans, and finally captures the city of Mossul together with the Islamic State as the military leader of his (Sunni) clan.
In February 2016 we were in Rabi’a again, this time with cameraman, assistant director, and crew, for a location tour. With our Asaish minders and local forces, as well as an Arab guide, we went to an outpost that was described to me as the last one before Syria. I knew from Google Maps that the actual border facilities were elsewhere, not far away on the highway from Mossul to Qamishli in Syria. The guide led us to this very highway, and the cameraman said, “Wow, it looks really great here.” The only thing was that the other side of the road was already YPG territory. If we set up a “YPG checkpoint” within sight of a YPG checkpoint, for a film with YPG flags and uniforms, it could lead to real problems. My political sympathies, which of course go in the direction of the YPG, wouldn’t be much use any more. But I knew the section of the highway lying further inside Iraqi territory; it would be all right there.
So our posse (fifteen people in all) marched back down the (blocked) highway towards Iraq and the PDK–Peshmerga checkpoint. When suddenly uniformed people waved from the roof of a building. And yelled. And brandished their Kalashnikovs. Then shouting between our Asaish and the ones in uniform. It was about the fact that these others had seen a posse of people, half of whom were in uniform, coming towards them from the Syrian side, and no one had informed them. It was a dangerous situation, for heaven’s sake, and irresponsible of the Asaish, they said. The Asaish, were of course not open to argument; this was ultimately their territory, and apart from that they were Asaish and the others just Peshmerga. Later our driver (who had himself spent ten years “in the mountains” (=PKK) sneered that they were traitors, Syrian Kurds who belonged to the PDK, who had betrayed the revolution in Rojava and formed a brigade within the Iraqi Pesmerga so as to return at some point to Syria.
Newroz called anxiously in the evening and apologized for the muddle.
The film features the smuggling of a MILAN antitank system across the border to Syria (and so the film will also be called Milan), and I really wanted to shoot this scene in Rabi’a. This wasn’t easy.
Mehmet and Jalal (set designer in the Iraqi part) tried to persuade me to reconstruct the border scenes in Zummar. Commander Newroz was there and would help us with everything. It would all be much simpler and anyway more realistic. I countered that “realistic” or “credible” was surely a cinema effect and above all has to do with cinematographic qualities and not with what is more simple or simply there. And the road in Rabi’a, with the YPG silo in the background and the bombed hospital in another background (in which IS snipers had entrenched themselves during the liberation) was simply the better image.
Newroz’s influence alone was insufficient to insure that we could film in the confused situation of Rabi’a (including the use of symbols belonging to political opponents).
Sheikh Ali is one of Kurdistan’s three or four Peshmerga generals. It isn’t easy to get an appointment with him. He has his office in a cordoned-off, evacuated quarter of Zummar. We stand in front of a largish detached house, around us Peshmerga and elite units in black with G3s instead of Kalshnikovs. A black Humvee stops, body guards jump out, and an older man in black Kurdish garb and sunglasses walks past us without a nod. We are asked to enter the house, and sit in the hall in a circle. We are given tea. The older man comes out of the bathroom, this time just in trousers and a T-shirt, and goes past us into the living room. We are asked into the living room. The older man (it is Sheikh Ali) is lying barefoot on the sofa, watching television. His T-shirt hangs partly out of his trousers. We sit down, receive more tea, and Sheikh Ali watches television. A Kurdish demonstration in Cologne; the volume is turned up. Mehmet and Adil state the project. It isn’t clear whether Sheikh Ali is aware of us at all. His phone rings. He turns down the volume and takes the call. Mehmet and Adil interrupt their pitch. When at some point everyone is outside having a smoke, the cameraman, assistant director and I are alone with Sheikh Ali. I say a few pleasantries in Arabic, as I can’t speak Kurdish. The others came back inside. Our line producer and Sheikh Ali’s adjutant have meanwhile also arrived. The pitch is repeated. Sheikh Ali turns from the television and reads a book. At some point he utters a sentence in an undertone in the direction of the television, and then everyone is silent for a while, drinking tea and watching television, and we leave the house. Mehmet is relieved: that was Sheikh Ali’s consent, which means that we can count on the support of the Peshmerga, that we can shoot in Rabi’a and on the Mossul dam, that in both places we can use YPG and IS symbols, flags, and uniforms.
There is a scene in the film in which the German doctor “Martina” drives into Syria to a YPJ military hospital and treats a German woman fighter. Commander Newroz agreed to let us film this scene in Zummar in a former Ba’athi military building. It had been occupied in the meantime by a Peshmerga unit, but they were supposed to move out for the day. Now the men sat in a corner of the courtyard and watched the shoot. One kingpin was pretty mad: he too was a Syrian Kurd who was in the Peshmerga as a PDK partisan. He had threatened to shoot at the YPJ flag if we dared to raise it on his barracks. Because we were able to settle the matter with Sheikh Ali via the chain of command, the officer sat scowling on his chair all day.
At the end of the film “Omar” is tortured in a basement by “Abu Adiq,” the military emir of the Islamic State. Six months after inspecting the real torture chamber, we shot the scene in an empty basement: the former disco of the Hotel Jihan. The disco had to close three years previously, due to too much trouble and too many gunfights “because of the Ukrainian girls.”
We now had footage from four weeks in the studio in Cologne and four weeks on location in Iraq. I had told Adil that he wouldn’t have any clothes on in the scene. But Adil had declined to go completely naked, which led to big discussions. Apo, for example, protested at the top of his voice. When the Turks had tortured him in the 1990s, he had of course been naked. Every fascist secret service tortured their prisoners naked. Adil couldn’t tell him it had been any different in Iraq, said Apo. In the film Apo plays “Serhat,” the local head of the Parastin. Which he did with much enjoyment, particularly as the Parastin, as the instrument of power of the neo-liberal, feudalistic PDK in northern Iraq, is situated at the other end of the political scale from Apo, who organizes culture from within the PKK milieu in the Kurdish-Turkish war. Adil and I agreed that underpants will do as nakedness. But first he has to go to Christine in make-up. Christine is a brilliant make-up artist for wounds: she is a mistress of abrasions, open wounds, stab wounds, and bullet wounds in all variations—and they’re convincing even in close-up. The back and forth between fictive, experienced, reported, and contemporary reality finally caught up with Christine too. The fact that Adil could give her tips from his own experience for work she normally does for the particularly fictive part of film productions (and for this reason particularly reveals the ability of the make-up artist) really got to her.
Resherba, the movie about the Yezidi woman that Hussein filmed from March to September 2015, was attacked by both pious Muslims and Yezidis, by the way. Both see themselves as falsely represented.
Title: Das Milan-Protokoll
Director, screenplay: Peter Ott
Camera: Jürgen Jürges and Jörg Gruber
Music: Ted Gaier
Cast: Catrin Striebeck, Bengin Ali,
Adil Abdurrahman, Christoph Bach
Production: mîtos film
in cooperation with WDR, hr, arte
Distribution: Real Fiction