Quite a high-spirited change of pace from Bahman Ghobadi’s Camera d’Or-winning first feature “A Time of Drunken Horses,” “The Songs of My Homeland” is another insider’s portrait of the Kurdish people, and, after wandering through some pretty surreal comedy terrain, ultimately a very moving work of cinema. Not as punishingly bleak as “Horses,” it describes the Kurds living on the border of Iran and Iraq not only as victims, but also as people who love music, life and children and have a wicked sense of humor that enables them to survive persecution. Good critical response should broaden Western auds for Ghobadi, who with this film is firmly established as the world’s premier Kurdish director and a real talent in new Iranian cinema.
A scruffy grab-bag of characters is introduced riding on a wagon pulled by a tractor across dusty Iranian Kurdistan. Barat (Fa’eq Mohammadi), straddling his beloved motorcycle with sidecar, has been summoned along with his brother Audeh (Alahmorad Rashtiani) to accompany his white-haired father Mirza (Shahab Ebrahimi) on a journey across the border to Iraq to find his ex-wife, the singer Hanareh. She and Seyed, the man she ran off with 23 years ago, were once part of Mirza’s famed musical group. Though the family curses her for bringing shame on them, Mirza is still in love with her.
The trip starts on a comic note, with Audeh loudly lamenting having to leave behind his seven wives and 13 daughters; bachelor Barat agrees it’s a great waste of time. Mirza hides the truth from them — that Hanareh is in trouble and urgently needs him.
The sickening sound of bombers streaking through the sky to drop their payloads on Kurdish villages accompanies them every step of the way. The Iran-Iraq war is over, and Saddam Hussein’s warplanes are now engaged in exterminating Iraq’s Kurdish population. Thousands of homeless people pour into Iran seeking refuge. Coming across a sprawling tent city of displaced people, Mirza tries to ferret out info on Hanareh.
Next the trio of musicians, who are feted wherever they go, land at a village wedding. Their tambourine, wind and string instruments create a tuneless cacophony much appreciated by the guests. Meanwhile, Mirza tries to extract news from a man buried up to his neck on the road in a protracted slapstick gag.
By hook or crook they reach Iraqi Kurdistan, after being robbed of their clothes and instruments by thieves disguised as policemen. The dusty villages of Iran turn into a snowy mountain landscape dotted with the overburdened donkeys of smugglers in a scene right out of “A Time of Drunken Horses.”
Bombs falling on the countryside add to the bedlam of a brawl, as Barat sees his stolen motorbike turn up lashed to a mule. No one pays any attention to two policemen who rush up in their underwear handcuffed together.
As the comic bits of business pile up, film loses a bit of momentum around the halfway mark. Then the tone slowly darkens as the three musicians tramp on through the snow and run across a huge camp of children orphaned in the war. They sing Hanareh’s song for the kids, with the screaming bombers providing a lethal counterpoint to their music.
With touching tenderness the oafish Audeh decides to adopt two boys who will become the sons his wives never gave him. Silly Barat finally takes off his motorcycle goggles to court a lovely girl who is looking for her brother’s body in a mass grave. Mirza leaves them behind to make the final trek of his journey alone. Pic reaches its wrenching conclusion in a camp of women (their men and sons are all dead) who have been disfigured and are dying from chemical bombs.
Though the local music is mostly for ethnic music lovers, cinematographers Saed Nikzat and Shahriar Assadi’s vast panoramas of Kurdistan will mesmerize all.