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It's Time to Listen; It's Time to Fight

2016 Sundance Film Festival

A Flag Without a Country (2016)

Bahman Ghobadi's new sort-of documentary "A Flag Without a Country" declares itself to be scripted from the lives of its subjects, making it a spiritual cousin of "No One Knows About Persian Cats" - his 2009 film about two Iranian musicians trying to leave the country - which blurred the distinctions between invented characters and nonactors playing themselves into a continuous smudge. It worked then in urban Iran, and it works again now in beleaguered Kurdistan, where a much thinner helping of anything resembling a narrative is balanced by wider humanitarian concerns. "Flag" and "Cats" may share some kindred drollery, but it feels like Mr. Ghobadi has found a suitably fissile material for his method in the faces of Kurdish children scanning a horizon only just far enough away to conceal the ISIS fighters hurrying toward them, as if the interlocking sadnesses of northern Iraq were now dense enough for documentary truth to become bent by gravity on its way out.

"Flag's" Kurdish protagonists, both playing approximations of themselves, meet briefly halfway through and again at the end, but otherwise go about their separate business with Mr. Ghobadi's camera in tow. One is Nariman Anwar, a genial aviator teaching young kids about both the science and joyous escape of taking to the air, and eventually corralling his class into building a functional light aircraft after scraping together the requisite pile of bits. Limping on crutches after a previous high-speed encounter with the tarmac, Mr. Anwar visits UNHCR camps looking for students to enroll, knowing full well that when he asks them why they want to fly in an aircraft, the answers will involve taking revenge and inflicting death from above. Mr. Anwar nods compassionately, plotting therapy. He recounts his life story, which seems to have involved only brief sessions on the ground between periods in the air and a lot of unrequited affairs of the heart. One of his crushes was hastily married off to another man during the two hours Mr. Anwar spent aloft on a flight, a low blow by any standards.

The other is Helan Abdulla, known to everyone in the documentary and almost everyone else in Asia as Helly Luv, Kurdish singer, dancer and all around live wire. Sleek and glamorous and effortlessly charismatic, Ms. Luv rounds up guns, children and some worryingly hungry lions from a sequence of charmed and mildly distracted male suppliers as if she was outfitting a supervillain's volcano hideout. She actually turns out to be making the music video for "Risk It All," performing on the rooftops of Erbil, Kurdistan, with Beyoncé's attitude and Shakira's stride, plus the added possibility of being strafed by a passing MiG. She too teaches Kurdish kids in the UNHCR camps, coaxing them into singing songs they know by heart and smiling sweetly at lyrics of battle and resistance. Her poker face flickers a bit more than Mr. Anwar's, but they both know the score - which is Mr. Ghobadi's point.

Does it matter how much of this is, shall we say, carefully staged? Mr. Ghobadi hardly disguises his directorial hand - one of those fans glimpsed taking a selfie with Ms. Luv looks awfully familiar - but the effect is a depiction of Kurdish lives redirected for something a bit more poetic than just humanitarian box-ticking. The lack of even the amount of story found in "Cats" feels like a flaw, until you spot that Ms. Luv and Mr. Anwar are going to end up washed in the opposite direction: toward the frontline. When ISIS finally do roll up, the pair both don fatigues and ship out with the peshmerga fighters, sharing the same truck - Ms. Luv has dyed her hair red for added ferocity. Mr. Ghobadi leaves it there, but Google provides the music video for "Revolution," made by a still-redhead Ms. Luv when she got to Mosul, Iraq, and which finally cemented her place on an ISIS shit list, in case the caliphate hadn't thought of a hundred reasons she deserved a place on it already.


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