A controversial French writer-philosopher redeems past attempts at self-aggrandizement with this in-the-trenches look at troops fighting ISIS.
Audiences who saw Bernard-Henri Lévy’s 2012 “The Oath of Tobruk” may have gotten a fright upon hearing that his new documentary would make a last-minute entry as a special screening at the Cannes Film Festival up. Ostensibly a close look at the 2011 Libyan war, “The Oath of Tobruk” instead turned out to be an embarrassing operation of self-glorification, projecting the director center stage as a key player in the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi. But Lévy’s new first-person documentary essay, “Peshmerga,” which follows Kurdish troops fighting ISIS (or “Daesh”) on the ground, happens to be truly enthralling and instructive. In a context of widespread fear after the attacks and mass killings regularly orchestrated by the jihadist group Islamic State, this very well documented homage to an irreducible group of freedom fighters should arouse the curiosity of those who seeking perspective on geopolitical issues.
“Peshmerga” opens on a wide shot: a lonesome man is climbing a dune. A companion shouts back. Too late. An explosion is heard and we believe to have lost the man. He’s actually alive, but severely wounded. “The film happened because of this image,” Lévy explains via voiceover. After having met six “courageous commanders” of the Kurdish forces during Spring 2015, the Parisian Left Bank philosopher decided to spend six months alongside them, “trying to understand” who those Kurdish Pershmerga combatants who fight ISIS on the ground were and what keeps their determination intact, despite the gravity of the task and the limited resources available to them. After having to battle for their land throughout much of the last century, do they only fight for their dream to finally establish the state of Kurdistan, or can the West consider them as their sincere new allies against obscurantism, wonders Lévy, whose opinion is obviously made.
Trough a chronological construction and a very comprehensive montage, the film follows the director’s journey with a battalion of peshmerga: 1,000 km from south to north along the frontier between Northern Iraq (mostly under Isis control) and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Lévy and his crew stay closer to the peshmerga, sharing their daily routines: discussions on the strategy to adopt, songs and games to pass the time, tricks to overcome the logistical problems faced by an under-equipped army. If most of the fighters’ time on screen is spent driving, hiding or waiting, the “action scenes” contrast by their terrifying intensity. There is some frightening battle footage, but the most harrowing sequence shows a very elegant white-haired general braving a hail of bullets and trying to protect his squad. This fearless and respected man was shot just a few seconds after the camera stopped filming, explains Lévy. On the other hand, the enemy is only seen from a distance, either through a zoom lens, via drone shots or as elusive silhouettes, reinforcing the upsetting idea of an intangible army of shadows.
Given the circumstances of shooting, the cinematographers’ work commands respect: Olivier Jacquin, Camille Lotteau and Ala Hoshyar Tayyeb, whom we see being harshly injured after the truck he was shooting from hit a landmine. Ghostly and captivating bird’s-eye view footage of the cities controlled by ISIS are also shot with the crew’s camera drones, as Lévy courteously provides an essential technology peshmerga wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.
The moments where the camera distances itself from the heart of the action are just as interesting and add some historical and sociological context to this embedded battle diary. A brief but powerful moment spent with the peshmerga’s female battalions illustrates the peshmerga’s tradition of equality, while a discussion with a pershmerga commander clarifies their position on the pro patria mori idea, far from the jihadi death cult: a good peshmerga is a peshmerga alive, and there is no such a thing as dying a martyr.
A highly publicized personality in France, known for having a luxurious lifestyle and friends in very high places, Lévy is also genuinely familiar with conflict zones. He’s been to Bosnia, Kosovo, Ukraine and Libya, writing essays about the ins and outs of the wars that affect those countries. Of course those who habitually disdain Lévy’s shallow narcissism will probably choke on seeing him appearing on screen in his battlefield outfit: even surrounded by death and dust, “BHL” — as he’s known in France — keeps his signature dark suit and open-collared white shirt immaculately ironed and his swirl of graying hair perfectly sculpted. But despite Lévy’s ubiquitous voice over and the fact he can’t always resist the temptation of staging his own bravery, we must admit that the director has opportunely toned down some of his usual grandstanding.
Clearly a tribute to “the only force fighting ISIS face to face,” “Peshmerga” doesn’t even try to be objective. But at a time when the vast majority of the world considers ISIS to be the incarnation of absolute evil, this optimistic admiration for a handful of brave fighters should not reduce the film’s chances to find its place in festivals.