Saddam Hussein's genocide of Iraq's Kurdish population hangs over the spare narrative of "Kilometer Zero" like an ax ever about to fall on the neck of little Kurdish soldier Ako. Looking a little underwhelming in this year's Cannes competition despite its obvious topicality, writer-director Hiner Saleem uses the same simple, effective but stretched-out storytelling as in his much-praised "Vodka Lemon."

Saddam Hussein’s genocide of Iraq’s Kurdish population hangs over the spare narrative of “Kilometer Zero” like an ax ever about to fall on the neck of little Kurdish soldier Ako. Looking a little underwhelming in this year’s Cannes competition despite its obvious topicality, writer-director Hiner Saleem uses the same simple, effective but stretched-out storytelling as in his much-praised “Vodka Lemon.” Much milder, though no less tragic, than the work of Iran’s Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi, Saleem’s picture tells another part of the same horrible story without being depressing or shocking. Pic should have a built-in audience among those interested in Mideast politics.

Saleem cleverly narrows the audience’s information gap by bracketing the story with the offscreen liberation of Baghdad in April of 2003. A French radio broadcast notes Saddam’s armies killed 182,000 Kurds with chemical weapons and by village massacres. Even if George W. Bush is suspected of having imperialist intentions, to the grateful Kurds the Americans and the coalition are liberators who finally got rid of their persecutor.

Most of the action takes place in 1988. In the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan live Ako (Nazmi Kirik) with his beautiful wife Selma (Belcim Bilgin), their son and his dying father-in-law. The condition of the cantankerous old man, who is typically depicted in a comic key, makes it impossible for the family to flee before Ako is thrown into the Iraq army.

Kurdish recruits who are rounded up are systematically insulted, mistreated and shipped off to the front as bomb- and missile-fodder in the war with neighboring Iran.

Ako is more determined than his persecuted, roly-poly friend Sami (Ehmed Qeladizehi) and buddy Adnan (Nezar Selami) to hightail it out of there ASAP. His chance comes when he is sent on a three-day mission to Kurdistan to deliver the body of a fallen soldier to the soldier’s family.

The long drive in a broken-down station wagon with a flag-draped coffin tied to the roof turns into a surrealistic journey. At each checkpoint, military guards require the depressing sight of the coffin be hidden from the local population. The film’s finest moments involve a parade of identical cars bearing their identical burdens, while a statue of Saddam carried on a truck bed mockingly salutes them.

These moments of surreal humor, along with striking frame compositions, go a long way toward animating the film’s minimalism. The natural beauty of Kurdistan is contrasted with the inhumanly dusty, empty desert around Basra, swirling with falling bombs.

Despite the many inspired visuals, however, without the backing of a strong storyline, midway through the war, the pace begins to drag. Ending lacks the twist that would close the tale with a bang.

Kirik, who plays the funny-faced Ako with little distinction at first, gradually comes into focus as he exchanges jabs with his racist driver (Eyam Ekrem), a dyed-in-the-wool Kurd-hater. One hears echoes of Palestinian director and wit Elia Suleiman in their absurd monosyllabic tangles. Other thesps remain weak, without close-ups or emotional outbursts to sustain their parts.

Dialogue wisely sticks to the essential, letting physical business like fistfights and firing squads tell the story sans comment. Robert Alazraki’s cinematography, which effectively separates the characters from the landscape, gives the film a stylishly bare look that holds things together despite some abrupt color jumps in the Cannes print.

Adding to the impression of an idealized Kurdistan is the stirring score and vocals by Nikos Kipourgos and Yan Axin.

Kilometer Zero

France-Kurdistan

Production

A Memento Films Distribution release (in France) of a Memento Films Production (France)/Hiner Saleem Production (Kurdistan)/La Cinefacture (France) co-production with the support of the regional government of Kurdish Iraq. (International sales: Memento Films International, Paris.) Produced by Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Hiner Saleem, Emilie Georges. Directed, written by Hiner Saleem.

Crew

Camera (color) Robert Alazraki; editor, Anna Ruiz; music, Nikos Kipourgos, Yan Axin; production designer, Fakher Sherwani; sound (Dolby Digital), Fredi Loth; associate producer, Fabrice Guez. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 10, 2005. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Ako - Nazmi Kirik Driver - Eyam Ekrem Selma - Belcim Bilgin Sami - Ehmed Qeladizehi Adnan - Nezar Selami (Kurdish, Arabic, French dialogue)
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