A soldier is running up a hillside in a desolate desert landscape. The camera man is following him, and calls the soldier to get him to wait. “Hajar! Watch out!” The soldier keeps running without paying attention. Soon after he reaches the entrenchment at the top of the hill, which suddenly explodes with a large bang. When the soldier returns, he is covered in dust. “It’s nothing. Forget it! Leave me alone! » The camera man follows him and asks him to sit down. “Man down!” he yells. The soldier falls to his knees, and we are right next to his bloodied face as he shouts “Long live Kurdistan!”
This is the impact of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s documentary Peshmerga (2016). The image of the bloodied soldier necessitated the making of this film, he explains. “What is this Kurdistan, whose tragic and brilliant name seems stronger than death itself?” This is how Lévy starts his film on the Kurdish military forces’ war against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh), trailing the troops around the Kurdish north-Iraq for six months, from July to November 2015. The film was screened amidst extensive security at the Copenhagen documentary film festival on 23. March.
«Had we left Libya alone, we may have had two Syrias today.” Bernard-Henri Lévy
Hero worship.Peshmerga, incidentally also the name of the Kurdish military troops we follow, depict the journey these forces take westward along the front towards Mosul. The documentary is packed with dramatic scenes: three injured men lay singing on the deck of a lorry. A white haired officer tells his soldiers to aim carefully before shooting at the enemy. Himself, he fires shot after shot, commenting on every hit he makes. Then he gets shot through his head and moments later dies.
The Peshmerga-fighters are portrayed as brave soldiers who live up to their name, which loosely translated means “those who are facing death” or “those who are first to sacrifice themselves”. Such an interpretation fits well with Lévy’s narrative about the fearless Peshmergas’ fight against the evil enemy ISIS. They fight bravely and shrewdly against barbarian, but cowardly, ISIS-fighters. «The scent of victory is in the air,» comments Lévy as a sort of «voice of God» over the images of the Kurdish troops victory parade following the liberation of the city of Sinjar and its many Yezidi inhabitants.
The Peshmerga hero worship and ISIS being portrayed as evil incarnate result in a very polarised documentary. Something which was commented on by Danish journalist Adam Holm during the conversation with Lévy, after the Copenhagen screening.
«The Kurds were our ‘boots on this bloody ground’. They did an invaluable job in keeping barbarism at bay, alone and with limited resources. Only sporadically were they supported by coalition air raids. The Kurds were on the ground, sacrificing their lives to this war. For their own, but also for us», says Lévy.
Lévy is vaguely optimistic on behalf of the Kurds’ own liberation war. The Peshmergas’ efforts in the fight against ISIS have shown that the Kurds are able to secure stability in northern Iraq. Such a stability would be able to increase the willingness to recognise a Kurdish desire for independence, he believes.
The soldiers fight bravely and shrewdly against barbarian, but cowardly, ISIS-fighters.
A justified war. Another thread journalist Holm is trying to follow, is what happened to the captured ISIS-fighters. In the documentary, they are taken away in a lorry, but the audience are not told what ultimately happens to them. Lévy explained that the reason he did not divulge this is due to the fact that he did not have complete information about all the prisoners. He managed to track two of the them, and was told they were imprisoned in
«I believe, and I have no reason to doubt this, that they are fairly treated”, says Lévy.
«We, and other colleagues who have been to war zones, know that no wars are justified, and prisoners rarely treated well. You deliver a romantic presentation of Peshmerga and we never get to know the war’s more sinister sides. I have seen reports stating that Pesmherga-fighters committed crimes against humanity”, says Holm.
“This film is my statement, and I witnessed no crimes against humanity,» parries Lévy. The opinionated film maker disagrees with Holm. He feels the term a “justified war” is legitimate in certain given contexts.
«When there are alternatives, when you are fighting against an enemy whose aim is to spread evil, when you enjoy wide, international support – a war can be deemed justified. The wars against Hitler and Franco were justified wars. This is also a justified war. What does not exist, are ‘good’ wars, says Lévy.
The documentarist rejects the notion of Peshmerga as a romantic film, but explains that it is not balanced. Lévy admits this could prove a limitation, but one that is wanted, in that case. He did not want to tell a nuanced story by dedicating five minutes to Peshmerga and five minutes to ISIS. That is not how to make films, states Lévy; you have to be honest, but not always balanced.
«What is this Kurdistan, whose tragic and brilliant name seems stronger than death itself?» Bernard-Henri Lévy
Influential. Previously, Lévy was a driving force behind the international intervention of certain nations’ internal conflicts. He campaigned for attacking the former leader of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi, and was among those convincing the then-leader President Nicolas Sarkozy to provide French support for a UN-led intervention in the country. The situation in Libya remains difficult, and many have been critical to the intervention as well as Lévy’s meddling.
«Look at the result. We did not intervene in Syria. Had we left Libya alone, we may have had two Syrias today, twice as many refugees and dead. History is never black and white. There is never one simple solution. Sometimes you have something terrible and something less terrible. Then we have to promote that which is less, said Lévy.
As a well-known intellectual in France, Lévy is able to influence many powerful people. He has already screened his latest film, Battle of Mosul (2017), in which he follows Iraqi military and militia groups, in addition to Peshmerga-troops, in their fight against ISIS, for several of the French presidential candidates. It was shot from October 17, 2016 to January 2017.
“I hope these candidates understand that the most important thing is what happens following the attack. What will Mosul be after Daesh? Will revenge be the decider, and will the divide between Sunny and Shia Muslims grow wider? Or could Mosul become a showcase for forgiveness and hope for the future?” asks Lévy.
Facts about Bernard-Henri Lévy
- Born in Algeria in 1948.
- Has published books on philosophy and politics since 1973.
- Infamous as France’s “playboy-philosopher”.
- Became a very controversial driving force for France’s wardare in Libya.
- Was a strong advocate of former IMF-boss Dominique Strauss-Khan.
- Peshmerga is his fourth outing as film director.
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