Migrant Voice caught up with writer, actor, and filmmaker, Kae Bahar about how films changed his life and his passion for the world that is cinema.
Kae was five years old when his older brother took him to the cinema for the first time. “I think it was Clint Eastwood’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and I was just mesmerised, said Kae, “and ever since that day I have wanted that world of cinema.”
Growing up under the regime of Saddam Hussein, in Kirkuk, Kurdistan, Kae spent most of his childhood in a harsh environment where there were no considerations for children. Born in a large Kurdish family of eight brothers and one sister, he considers himself to be very lucky to be introduced to cinema at such an early age “I couldn’t wait to go to the cinema again, films transported me to a different planet all together and I developed the strongest passion for them.”
He had dreams of going to film school, unfortunately however there were none in his country. This lack of opportunities compelled him to leave and thus fulfil his long-term desire to go to Italy. “When I was in school, I read Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and for some reason I was always awestruck by the land of Antonio”, so in 1980 with the financial support of his parents, he moved to Italy.
Language was not the only barrier Kae faced in this alien country. On reaching Italy he once again became the victim of Saddam’s regime as the government started interfering in his new life as well. At the age of 14, Kae was arrested by the secret police and tortured. He was forced by the Iraqi officials' decision to study chemical engineering- something that Kae had not even heard of. However with his tactful negotiations he succeeded to alter their decision. Although he couldn’t manage to change the field of chemical engineering to film studies he did manage to change it to architecture, something that was of more interest to him. “Out of 80 Kurdish students that were in Italy that year, it was a great feeling to be the only one to be able to amend the decision of the government, and though I couldn’t study films that year at least I managed to change it to something creative.”
Soon after, as part of the Nawroz celebrations, (Kurdish New Year), Kae went on stage with Khabat-Struggle, which was the first ever Kurdish play to be performed in Italy. This did not go unseen by the government and the Iraqi Embassy in Rome called him in and interrogated him about his role in what they regarded as a subversive play. Fearing to be boxed and shipped back to Iraq like those who had succumbed to this scheme used by the Embassy at the time for those who opposed Saddam’s regime, Kae arranged for a friend to wait outside ready to raise the alarm if necessary (like a backup escape route). Inside he was threatened to be sent back to Iraq and was forced to become an informant and a spy on the other Kurds’ activities in Italy. On getting out of the Embassy, he turned around and called, “I am not Iraqi and I am no one’s spy.” He never returned to the embassy.
After that he was refused the renewal of his passport and was deprived of the financial support from his family. With no valid passport, no money and no work permit, he was under pressure from the Italian government to leave the country and return to Iraq. But Kae was a man of words and soon after, he managed to get full political refugee status by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
Along side his architectural degree at the University of Venice; Kae undertook a two-year diploma in acting. He then worked as an actor for more than five years with a theatre company that was subsidised by the ministry of culture. He was the only foreigner in the company. Often he played multiple roles in the same play. He also gained opportunity to tour the world with the company.
Kae never managed to play lead roles in any of the productions. “I guess not having a nation state or a national film industry one doesn’t have adequate roles to play as a lead.”
During this time he met his girlfriend, a young English girl, Josie who was studying in Italy. They got married in 1993 and started a business of selling masks. However after a few years they felt the need to move out of Italy and start a family. They wanted to be close to family but going back to Kurdistan was not an option for him, so they moved to England, the home country of his wife. They live in London along with their three children Taro, 17, Tashan 15 and Leon 10.
Since 1993, Kae has been working with filmmaker Claudio Von Planta, and together they have produced and directed several documentary films, which were broadcasted on major channels around the world. Kae is currently working on the pre-production of his short film, A drop of Blood and A bar of Chocolate, the second and third short films in a trilogy about women’s fight for freedom. “I firmly believe that societies will never succeed or prosper unless they recognize the equality and the freedom of women and thus I feel that it is very important for me to tackle this situation.”
Knowing so much about the Kurdish culture his films focus on the life and struggle of Kurdish women from harsh realities who stand up and fight for their rights. The women in his films represent many other cultures that have had corrupt societies where women are often looked down upon
He is also very excited about his first feature film Blindfold Shoes that he will be shooting sometime next year.
Kae’s talents also encompass writing, and he has recently completed his first novel BOYGIRL- an epic tale of star-crossed love and seething hatred, revenge and betrayal, hypocrisy and politics, power and violence, torture and death.
Kae visited Kurdistan in 2005 three times as a result of which he produced and directed his 90 minutes feature length documentary film: Return to Kirkuk/A year in the Fire. “I went back after 25 years and was completely taken aback by the transformation of my homeland, I couldn’t recognize my city.” He thinks that the regime of Saddam Hussein reduced communication and culture to banality, which has created a culture of fear among the Kurds.
He is also currently working on a project called “Drama and Media” which focuses on the introduction of film and media as a subject in schools in Kurdistan.
“Films have had the biggest impact on my life, I want to connect films to reality and hopefully bring a change in the life of the Kurds and help them realize that they made life a lot more complicated and darker than the way it is.”
By: Ruchita Daswani