Young Intellectuals Making Movies

When I think about intellectuals and movies, I think of Susan Sontag. For Sontag, movies were the most promising form of modernist expression, in part, because they elided the domineering and interpretative hubris of the intelligentsia. “In good films, there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret,” she wrote in 1964. By allowing surface aesthetics and everyday existence to linger on camera and providing a “direct experience of the language of faces and gestures,” films could force us to experience life in a way the written word never could.

Sontag’s anti-intellectualism, her argument “against interpretation,” was itself intellectual. After all, she championed the avant-garde directors of her time—Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, and François Truffaut—who were certainly intellectuals in their own right (Godard consistently flashed written words on the screen to explain theories, and Resnais taught literature before going into film). The founding principle of the French “New Wave”—the director as auteur—asserted movie-making as an intellectual act. Even Sontag tried making films (by most accounts, not very successfully).

Sontag’s cinematic enthusiasm withered as the twentieth century wore on. Writing her last essay about “cinema” in 1995, Sontag declared an “ignominious, irreversible decline” in films. “Ordinary films,” she believed, would continue to be “astonishingly witless,” “bloated,” and “derivative.” “Wonderful films” could still be made, she admitted. But lost forever was a “cinephelic love of movies,” that self-educated and intellectual element within filmmaking and viewing she could never quite give up on, even if it was now deemed “quaint, outmoded, snobbish.”

Who could disagree with Sontag? The “television generation” has managed to lower the standards of movies to unfathomable depths. What could be more derivative than a film version of such sitcoms as The Dukes of Hazzard or Starsky and Hutch? We’re beyond an “irreversible decline.” And yet, people continue to make movies. Today there are even some young intellectuals, grounding themselves in the “cinephelic,” who believe movies should convey emotion and challenge viewers. They too have the same enemy that Sontag spotted in 1995: a corporate Hollywood that expects all films to be made via assembly line and then submitted to focus groups. They are struggling to preserve a personal voice in a world of mass formulas.

THEY ALSO HAVE a new enemy that developed at the time of Sontag’s writing. It’s called “independent” film, and any cultural historian will easily identify its contours. They consist of the Sundance Film Festival, now known for celebrity-spotting as much as serious film-watching; the Independent Film Channel; and Miramax studios. As with so much else in postmodern culture, “Indiewood,” as one jo...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.