Sting in the Tale: Documentary filmmaker Mano Khalil on the plight of Kurdish refugees

Documentary filmmaker Mano Khalil, whose film The Beekeeper had its India premiere at DIFF, on panning the camera on the plight of Kurdish refugees and describing their struggles for a better life

Written by Debesh Banerjee | New Delhi | Updated: November 3, 2014 12:25 pm
Stills from The Beekeeper; Mano Khalil Stills from The Beekeeper; Mano Khalil

Most Kurdish refugees, to Switzerland or other parts of Europe, are predominantly known for setting up eateries, serving the best of their regional delicacies, such as shawarmas or donor kebabs. But Ibrahim Gezer, a Kurdish refugee from Turkey is an exception. The 65-year-old Turkish-Kurd with a quiet demeanour has only known one thing in life — beekeeping. His colony of bees (500 in number) were a source of a respectable lifestyle in southeast Turkey until the upheaval between the Turkish authorities and the Kurdish guerrilla fighters took it away. “The war robbed Gezer of everything, his wife, children and more importantly, his colony of bees. But he knows nothing else and still harvests honey from his bees,” says 50-year-old Kurdish-Syrian filmmaker Mano Khalil, who told the story of Gezer through his documentary The Beekeeper at the third Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF).

The 107-minute documentary had its India premiere over the weekend. The film, in Kurdish and German,  looks at the story of Gezer in the larger context of the displacement (and at times disappearance) of unknown number of Kurds from Syria and Turkey due to the struggle to establish a Kurdistan State. After sending his 11 children to Switzerland in the late ’90s, Gezer was also able to successfully migrate to Switzerland as a Kurdish refuge. Over here, he slowly reestablished his business of beekeeping in the Andermatt area of the Swiss Alps.

For Khalil, the beekeeper’s journey, in many ways, mirrors his own struggles and assertion of identity as a Kurdish national outside of his homeland. “In the mid ’80s, I decided to make films. So I left Syria and went to study filmmaking in Czechoslovakia.  It was a big dream, coming from a small village in Syria-Kurdistan, to become a filmmaker but others would laugh at me. Making films has been my medium to express my freedom first, then the freedom about my own people,” says Khalil, who moved to Switzerland as a Kurdish refugee in 1996 and became an independent filmmaker.

The current war being waged with the ISIS militants in Syria is an opportunity, says Khalil “for the Kurdish people to build their own nation”. “I look at the fight of the Kurdish guerillas with ISIS as freedom work. We will succeed sooner or later,” he says.

Having made over 15 documentaries/ feature films, Khalil says that his effort has always been to highlight the cause of Kurds anywhere in the world. “If I didn’t make these films, the regimes (Syrian and Turkish) would have won and they would have succeeded in getting rid of Kurds like me,” says Khalil, who has also written, produced, and done the cinematography for The Beekeeper. “I like to be in control of all elements and not be at the mercy of a production house,” says Khalil, adding, “Gezer is a rare Kurd who does beekeeping for a living. I met him in 2009 and that fact about him interested me a lot”. The film was awarded the Best Documentary at the Bozner Filmtage this year, and the Best Kurdish Documentary at the Duhok Film Festival 2013.

Shot extensively over a three-year period in Basel, and the Alps, the film unravels Gezer’s life; the grief behind losing one of his sons to the revolution; his wife who committed suicide in Turkey; his caustic equation with his children; and flashbacks from his life in Turkey in the ‘80s and his thriving beekeeping business. The film has a slow pace and at moments, feels stretched. “At first he was reluctant
to open up about his life. But my attempt is to share the subject and protagonist with the audience completely,” says Khalil.

Though the film looks at Gezer’s search for a peaceful life, the irony is not missed through the film. “Just like me, Gezer does not like living in Switzerland. He did not come here to live and work. He came here only for freedom,” he says. Khalil is currently working on the post-production of his next film, The Swallow, based in Iraqi-Kurdistan, about a Swiss girl with a Kurdish father.

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