There are few areas of docu filmmaking more demanding than investigative reports on remote foreign territories, and Kevin McKiernan’s “Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friends But the Mountains” emerges as a superior example of the form. In the time-honored tradition of intrepid journalists going into war zones to bring back the story, McKiernan takes his roving camera to the front lines of the Kurdish rebellion against the Turkish government. At the same time, he tells of the Kurds’ tragedy from the perspective of a Stateside clan, blending family chronicle with political document and lending pic an unusually broad and dynamic range. Though openly supportive of the Kurdish independence cause, pic strives for as many voices as possible, and is several leagues beyond the usual agitprop project, which should give it long legs on the fest circuit and worthy status on vid library shelf.
Pic also deserves airing on longform network TV news programming, but McKiernan reports that his meticulously researched findings fell on deaf ears at such natural outlets as ABC’s “Nightline.” Filmmaker reports this frustrating state of affairs in the context of a larger reality, which is that the West in general appears indifferent regarding the plight of the Kurds. In other Western circles, where NATO member Turkey is viewed as a vital strategic interest regardless of its nasty internal policies, the Kurd minority is essentially a sacrificial lamb in the larger geopolitical scheme.
Pic plunges in where few have dared to tread (McKiernan’s print story on the subject, published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, earned a ’99 award from Project Censored as one of the year’s most underreported stories). After recounting his frustrations trying to get the story out, McKiernan describes his encounter with the Gunduz family, Kurdish emigres living and working near his Santa Barbara, Calif., home, and utilizes them as the human element in a complex story.
The most activist of the Gunduz brothers is Kani, who “cringes” at the media coverage of oppressed Tibetans and noncoverage of Kurds, and who goes on to wage peaceful battle in the halls of Congress as the only full-time lobbyist for the Kurdish cause. Kani’s story develops through the course of the docu into a kind of thriller when he’s threatened with deportation for falsifying visa paperwork.
McKiernan deftly intercuts the family’s personal accounts (clan is shown busy at work in the appliance store they own) with an overview of Kurdish history and the rebellion in Turkey. The Kurds are described as “the largest minority in the world without a nation”; the group overlaps three nations — Turkey, Iraq and Iran —whose policies vary widely. Docu, however, fails to describes Iran’s live-and-let-live approach as contrast to Iraq’s brutal scorched-earth actions and Turkey’s conventional warfare tactics, which are almost entirely funded and abetted by U.S. money and weapons technology.
Though the camera following the insurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) ground troops never encounters direct combat, pic thoroughly documents Turkey’s mass depopulation of more than 3,000 Kurdish villages, leaving 2 million-plus homeless and more than 37,000 dead in the years-long war. Docu is one of the rare efforts to place the generally pro–human rights Clinton administration in the uncomfortable position of having to explain its support of the troublesome NATO ally.
To his credit, McKiernan doesn’t downplay the PKK’s wartime atrocities. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan provided filmmaker with a rare one-on-one interview before his arrest and conviction in a widely criticized Turkish state trial, and insists that Turkey’s abuses far outweigh those of his soldiers. But in this swift-paced, consistently engrossing report, the global is always brought back home, as the Gunduz family members make some difficult, perhaps foolhardy decisions that dramatize the lengths to which Kurds in Turkey will go in pursuit of freedom.
Vid lensing by McKiernan and master Haskell Wexler is first-class, with extra bonus of a fine, moody Bronwen Jones score.