The plight of children in wartime, often a central concern in the work of Bahman Ghobadi, comes once more to the fore in “A Flag Without a Country,” a moving if scattershot documentary portrait of two individuals — a singer and a pilot — reaching out to some of the young Kurdish refugees that have recently poured into Iraq from Syria. Drawing an arc between his subjects’ memories of earlier conflicts and ISIS’ murderous present-day onslaught, Ghobadi fashions a loose-limbed tribute to Kurdish resilience that walks a thin line between despairing and inspiring; if the resulting dispatch feels fragmentary and incomplete, the persistence of violence and unrest in the region suggests it could scarcely be otherwise. Expect festivals to fly this particular “Flag” on the strength of its director’s rep and timely subject matter.
The first and more engaging of the film’s subjects is Nariman Anwar, a thirtysomething pilot and all-around aerial enthusiast known for assembling his own planes by hand. The film recounts a harrowing incident in which the man known as “Nariman the Pilot” landed his plane in a crowded area to give a speech on the occasion of Iraqi Kurdistan’s 2013 parliamentary elections; making a hasty subsequent departure, he crashed the plane. Anwar happily survived the wreck (shown in brief, harrowing footage), but spends much of the film hobbling around the city of Erbil on crutches as he tries to recruit children for his pilot school. Perhaps understandably, under the circumstances, the parents we see are none too eager to have their kids enlist. But for Anwar, the art of building and flying planes is more than just a personal obsession; it offers a thrilling promise of freedom and escape that he longs to share with his embattled fellow Kurds.
Anwar’s story is intercut (but never intersects) with that of Kurdish pop star Helly Luv (nee Helan Abdullah), who’s introduced in an initially mystifying collection of scenes, shopping for automatic rifles, getting friendly with some caged lions, and talking to children at a refugee camp near the Syrian border. Turns out she’s acquiring props and cast members for a provocative, call-to-arms music video for her 2013 single, “Risk It All,” which will eventually become a viral hit. But Luv’s rising-star excitement is tempered by concern for her people amid continued news reports of Kurdish deaths at the hands of ISIS. She does her part to help not only by writing and performing songs that call for her homeland’s independence, but also encouraging the young refugees to celebrate their heritage through music.
While the kids remain largely unindividuated throughout, we do catch glimpses of the children’s brightness and potential, as well as their natural curiosity about the possibilities that Anwar and Luv have opened up for them. We also see the heartbreaking extent to which they’ve been scarred by life in and around a war zone, as when some of the kids announce they want to fly planes so they can help destroy ISIS. Anwar responds by gently coaxing them in a more peaceful direction, though by film’s end, we see him taking up arms and joining the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who have largely led the fight to drive back the Islamic State, and achieved a number of crucial victories in the process.
Drawing its title in part from the flags that figure into both Anwar’s and Luv’s respective projects, “A Flag Without a Country” is unmistakably Ghobadi’s impassioned tribute to the creativity and courage of his people, and the sense of solidarity they have maintained despite their tumultuous history. But the film is also a memory piece that seeks to link the ongoing crisis with those that have preceded it. Luv recalls her own history as a child of the Persian Gulf War, during which her family fled from Iraq to Iran to Turkey and finally to Europe, where they settled down in Finland. Anwar flashes back to the time he built his first plane during the Iran-Iraq War, intending to impress the family of his potential fiancee — only to find himself barred from flying due to airspace restrictions. This episode and others are illuminated with brief dramatic re-creations, the effect of which is to gently blur the lines between nonfiction and narrative, something Ghobadi has pursued more aggressively in his earlier work.
Music, too, has provided a foundational element in some of the director’s recent films, particularly “Half Moon” (2006) and “No One Knows About Persian Cats” (2009), his documentary-fiction hybrid set among Tehran’s underground indie-rock musicians. The director’s use of song here is comparatively restrained, though one of his choices feels unfortunately trite: a montage of images of hard-scrabble refugee life, including row after row of Kurdish graves, all set to a teenager’s melancholy piano performance. It feels like a strained effort to bring these individuals and their ordeal to some sort of closing summation, which seems disingenuous at best; “A Flag Without a Country” concludes, as it must, with no real end in sight.