One of many recent films in which a soccer match becomes a metaphor for something more, “Kick Off,” the second feature by Iraqi Kurdish director Shawkat Amin Korki, tells a drawn-from-real-life story with raucous performances from non-pros and powerful production design. Putting a human face on the collateral damage of war, the tragicomedy unfolds inside a partially destroyed soccer stadium in Kirkuk, Iraq. Winner of New Currents and critics’ awards in Pusan, this poignant pic should go on to a healthy fest life and could score limited arthouse play in some territories.
Within the stadium’s ruined walls, some 300 refugee families of various ethnicities — Kurds, Arabs, Turks and Assyrians — live in a makeshift shantytown. Displaced years ago by Saddam Hussein’s soldiers, most have been around for a long time. Although tensions exist among the different groups, they all love to watch and play soccer.
When his young brother, Diyar (Mihamed Hamed), loses a leg after chasing a ball into a landmine-filled no-man’s-land, idealistic Asu (Kurdish singer Shwan Atuf) comes up with a scheme to keep the local youth busy and safe. With heavyweight loudmouth pal Sako (Govar Anwar), he plans a friendly soccer tournament between ethnic groups, to take place on the stadium’s former field. He also hopes to impress his beautiful neighbor, Helin (Rojan Hamajaza), whom he chastely admires.
But nothing is easy in this place, where water and electricity are difficult to come by and cunning improvisation rules. Even as the two men make comical progress in mobilizing the community, finding sponsors and team uniforms, Korki keeps the area’s danger and unrest in the frame as noisy helicopters constantly circle overhead and smoke from not-too-distant explosions colors the horizon.
After the straightforward storytelling of his feature debut, “Crossing the Dust,” multihyphenate Korki (who studied in Iran) confidently deploys lyrical, at times surreal visuals that in some ways call to mind the work of fellow Kurds Hiner Saleem and Bahman Ghobadi, yet are uniquely his own. The ruined stadium seems to have spurred his imagination; he shows the numerous ingenious ways the inhabitants make use of the space, from the seating section that serves as a makeshift school to the burned-out remains of equipment that the children use as a jungle gym.
The impressively mobile lensing alternates between rich black-and-white and color-drained shades of gray in which red and yellow spot color is applied to things such as T-shirts and smoke.
As with “Crossing the Dust,” the polished craft credits are the work of an experienced, mostly Iranian crew. Japanese co-producer NHK became involved after “Dust” made an impact at the 2006 Tokyo Film Festival.