I Want to Live: Documentary Film on Kurdish Refugees from Rojava in Kurdistan

Film Diary, Film Review, Update & News
I Want to Live ©Karzan Kardozi

I Want to Live Karzan Kardozi

Here are some still from my documentary feature film on the life of Shndar;  A Kurdish refugees from Rojava in West Kurdistan (Syrian Kurdistan) now living in South Kurdistan in a camp. He fled the the recent ISIS attacks upon Rojava, he is 16 years old who has Thalassemia and must have immediate treatment. He live in a camp with his father who is deaf and mute, work as a laborer when there is a job outside the camp, because of his Thalassemia, he has to get blood transfusion every month in order to live.  The film is about him, his daily life on the camp and outside of it, and also the life inside the camp. The film is slow paced, rather Arty, more visual and very little dialogue driven. More than being a film about the life of refugees, it is a meditation on life, death, war, peace, and tolerance.


I gave this Interview about the film to Suna Alan on how the films was made:

When and which camp in South Kurdistan did you shoot your documentary ‘’I Want to Live?

For the final project of my Master degree, I was required to make a film, and I went to back to Kurdistan in the Summer of 2014, I shot the film in the span of one week at Arbat Camp outside Sulaimani. I did the producing, directing, cinematography, editing of the film. At a distance of only 40 minutes from the city of Sulaimani is Arbat Camp in the town of Arbat, the camp had more than 700 Kurdish families from Rojava. Despite having the permit, on my visit to the camp I was denied the access to the camp, I was told to meet personally the head of the security of the camp, and it took me two days to meet him, at first; he was against allowing a camera into the camp and giving us access for many days and nights, but after a lengthy talk and my explanation that the film was for a Western audience and part of a Master degree program, he was more than happy to allow me to film, wanting a Western audience to be informed about the life of the Kurdish refugees in the camp, I was giving permission to film for eight days and nights with full access to all the areas inside and outside the camp. On the same days I visited the camp to find a subject and a narrative to follow. I was confident that by walking around the camp and talking to people, I would find many stories and subjects to film, my original plan was to have three different narrative on three different subjects; a young boy, a women and a man. While walking around with a guide, as he was showing us the different area of the camp, in the school, we meet a little boy of 16 by the name of Shndar, right way I knew my film will be about him. Unlike many people in camp who only spoke the Kurmanji dialect of the Kurdish language, Shndar was fluent on both Kurmanji and Sorani dialect, at first he was shy to talk to us, but after talking to him for a while and walking around the camp with him, he became a friend to us and was more than happy to be filmed, on the same day, we visited his tent, talked to his parent and got their permission to film him.

How were the conditions of the Rojavan refugees in the camp in general during your shooting?

I tried to become one of them while shooting the film, and we would go around all over the camp with the camera, so the people got used to us, after a few days, we were like someone who lived inside the camp, just a normal person, they did not look at us as outsiders, and you can see that in the film, they behave naturally in front of the camera. As for life in the camp, you can see it in the film how life is, I don’t need to comment on it, the film does.

What is the main subject of your story?

The story if not mine, it is the story of Shndar, a little boy from Rojava who has Thalassemia, and he must have a surgery very soon, or it is too late. I wanted to see life the way he does, so it is his story, the camera is there to capture it.

Why did you choose to tell the story of a refugee boy instead of the refugees in the camp in general?

Well, for one reason; I do not like to generalize, you see that everyday in the News and Documentaries, in which people become just a mere number or a group, they lose their individual identity, I wanted to show, that among these Refugees that you hear about everyday mentioned, they each have a story and life that is precious to them as it is to everyone, and they are not just a number.

6. What are your messages via your film?

I really do not have any message, I’m not a filmmaker that want to manipulate or sell an idea or ideology, I want to show life as it is, and it happened that in this film, the life is that of a Refugee boy, a Kurdish Refugee boy who has no home, no country, nothing to call his own, not even a healthy life. I let the viewer make up his/her own interpretation of whatever the message of the film might be.

Will you have any other film project on Rojavan refugees in south Kurdistan?

I hope so, this was my last Documentary film, I wish in the future to make Fiction film, and Rojava will always be part of my future plan.

Here are my notes on the Production:

Day One:
I took the task of Director and DP upon myself, for the simple reason that having a crew of more than two meant attracting the attention of the people in the camp, and the people would be uncomfortable in front of the camera seeing the large crew behind it, also upon meeting Shndar, I realized that he was a shy person that did not want attention nor eyes to be looked at him while in front of the camera, and having only a crew of two mean that we melted into the people of the camp as we became friend with many of them, and indeed that happened; within two days of shooting, they treated us as one of them. I decided the narrative of the film to be in the control of Shndar and his daily life. We would visit his tent every morning and would follow his daily plan, but I was not yet sure of what style to follow. The first day of filming took place in the school; I filmed everything in a formal and constructive manner, using long lens for rapid shift between different shot sizes, from extreme close-up to wide shots, I filmed everything in coverage, with the editing in post-production for each scenes and sequence in mind all the time. On the same afternoon, as we took a break, I looked into the footage inside the camera that was shot, and I noticed the realism in the scenes came from those wide shots that I let the camera run and did not force my own personal perspective or coverage style of the film. That is when I decided to film the rest of the scenes using Wide Angle lens, with the camera at a distance, and latter use editing in little manipulative manner. Choosing such style meant shooting lengthy takes and having a film that is slow in pace, but such style was best fitted for the slow life of the camp, I had to use it in order to capture the reality.

The Rest of Filming:
We filmed 4 days and one full night in the life of Shndar and the camp, and spent another 2 days recording his voice-over. Each day we would follow Shndar, he would tell us about his daily plan, and we would arrange shots to be setup as we followed him around, most of the time I filmed him without his knowledge, for I realized that by doing so, he behaved in a normal and realistic manner, same was true with the scenes that were shot with the people in the camp. To give an example; Shndar would tell us that sometime in the morning he would visit the children playground, I would ask him to take us, we would walk to the place, I would setup the camera and let it run, then I would tell Shndar to walk to the playground, at the first two takes, he would act as in a fictional film, swinging his legs and body as he walked, very theatrical, instead of telling him to do it again, I kept the camera running, telling him that we filmed everything and it was all good, let him take a break, then I would ask him to walk to the playground and wait for us to join him, or I would tell him that we had to do one more take just for sound, only then, when he thought that the camera was not filming did he gave a realistic performance. Everything was captured in such realistic manners, not a single shot in the film was staged, there was one shot that I filmed but not used in the film that I staged in a fictional manner; the scene was of Shndar visiting the Doctor in the camp, they both watch a French song on a laptop, I staged that scene and filmed it, but later during editing, I realized that it was rather weak, and I did not use it in the final film. Choosing such style and directing approach for the film with only two of us as a crew meant that we moved fast between places and we encountered many surprises, some of the best scenes in the film is shot in that manner, for example; the scenes in the cucumber field, as we started filming, it rained, the cloud came, and Shndar felt such happiness in being in the field, away from the tents, under the rain, he was laughing from joy. Summer rain in Kurdistan is very rare, and I knew it would not last more than half an hour, so we had to shoot every single second of it, as I ran from one place into another to film each scene.

I filmed a total of 20 hours of footage, and it took me almost a month to captured the scenes that I wanted to use in the film, the war with ISIS on the borders of South Kurdistan and the flooding or refugees lead to electricity power shortage which gave me little times use my computer to capture the footage. I captured a total of 6 hours of films and lined them up as a rough cut, then I had to start chopping them to pieces, and it hurt, because not only did I had to eliminate many shots in the film, but I had also to trim the rest of the shots that ended up in the film, despite wanting to have a very slow pace film that made the audience live in the camp for with Shndar and these refugees, to take them and making them experience the life in the camp, into a world far from their comfort zone, but I had no choice than to be realistic to cut down the film to 1 hour and 45 minutes in the end, some scenes in the film suffers because of that, if I had filmed a long take of 4 minutes during filming, it meant that I wanted it to end in the film in such length, but on the editing stage; I had to trim it down to 30 second or 45 second, only then could I have shortened the length of the film. More than wanting to slow down the pace of the film, I also used different pace to shift between sequences; Day One is fast paced, because it fit the narrative, Shndar is in School and visit the Bazaar with his brother, both place are crowded and life in them are fast. Day Two is very slow, because Shndar walk around the camp, watch TV in his tent and goes to picnic, all are less crowded places and the pace was indeed slow as time seemed to slow down. His visit to the cucumber field is edited in a poetic style, and the final scene is the longest, because I wanted the audience to feel every second of Shndar taking the shot and the pain as he is in bed for 6 hours waiting for the medication to end.

Voice-Over and Sound Mixing:
It took us two days to record the voice-over, I recorded all the sound in secret; I ran the camera and we sat in the tent with Shndar asking him different question about life in Rojava, his sickness, the family becoming refugees in Kurdistan, I asked him about everything; from nature of War, to love, to hate, to religion, to music, etc. At times I would ask the same question in different manners as to get his view on a subject, and all the time the camera was recording, the lens away from him, but the microphone right beside him recording the sound, a reason that his voice-over is so realistic and he seem to be talking to a friend rather than to a camera. The total voice-over of Shndar and us asking him questions was more than 6 hours in length, with 2 hours of his VO in the rough cut and I had to trim it down to around 20 to 30 minute in the final film. I did not use any sound effect other than what is captured in the scenes. For my fictional short films, I usually use many different outside sounds and effects, mix it into the film, but for I Want to Live, I only used the sound in the shots and did no manipulation of them for the exception of changing the volume when the VO come into the scene, for my aim was realism.
Color Correction: I used very little Color Correction during editing, I had to bring back the White Balance for a few shot, and I wanted the film to look grainy, I prefer a grainy image to a sharp one, some of the scene had to be grainy for I had no choice; such as the scenes of the camp at night, for it was impossible to light a whole camp, and it is rather more realistic to have a grainy shot than a blurry sharp one that is fixed in the post-production. More than having a grainy film, I also let some of the technical detail stay in the film to give it more realism; in some shots you could see rain falling on the lens, there are spot of rain left on the lens, I did not clean it up until the shooting of that day was over, even one can see a light reflected in one of the shots. I left them all in the film and did not want to remove them or fix them in post-production.

Budget and Aftermath:
What I’m most proud off is the fact that I made the film with less than $400 spent. Making a feature documentary film in such small budget is not even heard off here in Kurdistan, a local TV station will spend more than $5000 for such a film, I managed to do it, because there was only two of us in the crew, and I shot it in the span of only 6 days, did all the editing, color correction, sound mixing and creating English subtitle by myself, it was physically and mentally a hard challenge to tackle, but we did it and proved for others that they could do it. More important; I became a close friend to Shndar and him family, visiting them many times after the filming was finished, we are still in touch. Spreading awareness about the life in the camp, the struggle of Shndar with thalassemia and life in the camp is a worthy cause to make a film about, if that is what the film comes down too at the end, then, it was worth all the effort that went into the making of the film, because of the film now Shndar got a chance with his family to go to UK in order to have a bone-transplant and his live might be saved.

P.S: The quality of the images are lowered for it to be uploaded.

I Want to Live (Karzan Kardozi, 2014)

I Want to Live (Karzan Kardozi, 2014) Public Domain

I Want to Live ©Karzan Kardozi

I Want to Live ©Karzan Kardozi



Thalassemia: Shadow of Death

Culture, Update & News

©KarzanKardoziI have seen many houses in my time, traveled many places, many cities, towns and villages since my childhood, and each time revisiting the places, I had noticed many changes in them, from tragic to that of joy, but one of the houses that had always kept a vivid memory in me, the changes in that  house, of the people in the house, has been so tragic, that just thinking of it make my heart heavy.

The house, or rather, the mud house that once were, is located in the upper northern part of the Shadala village, a 45 minute care ride from the city of Suliaimani now, but in the old days, it took half a day to reach it; the house with its mud roof, gray walls and big rooms looks upon the whole village as towering figure. The first time I visited the house was many years ago, I was a little kid of seven, I remember vividly playing Football on the roof of the house with other kids, every few minutes the ball would roll down into the ground, down into the village, across the streets, one of the us had to make the long journey of bringing the ball back.

Every summer, with my father, we would make a journey to Shadala village, for my grandmother was from the village, and most of my Father’s distance relative reside there. The house belonged to kak Ahmed, he was a distance cousin of my father. It was my first visit to the house, and I remembers it very distinctly.

©KarzanKardoziWhen we got to the house, my Father left me alone in a little room, as he went with kak Ahmed to visit the village, I sat in a corner, shy, not knowing what to do, until a little woman of forty, the wife of kaka Ahmed walked into the room, seeing me sitting alone, she shouted to his little son, who was playing outside, “Come and play with Haji Sharif’s son”. Everyone in the village, then, and even know, referred to me as “Haji Sharif’s Son”, for my father is almost like a cult figure among the people of the village.

Her son, Rejan, was of the same age as me, skinny with green eyes, he seemed fragile and pale, we became friend right away. He told me about a beehive they had, and being mischief of a boy, I wanted to see the hive, he took me to it, all the time telling me on the way not to touch it. I picked up a stick, into the hive, suddenly, bees everywhere, attacking, a few bite here and there, I started to cry as loud as possible, all the time, Rejan trying his best to comfort me, “It is nothing, look, I got bitten many times”, he took a handful of mud and put it on the places where I was bitten, comforting me, “It is nothing”

Five minute later I was sitting on a big soft carpet, eating lunch with the family. There were smell of freshly baked bread, goat milk and chess, sweet honey and hot tea. On the mud walls, hang three portraits; two young boys and a little girl, on the corner of the room, the mother was sewing little socks for Rejan, now and them, she would look at us with a smile.

After dinner, I could not help but whisper to my Father; as to whom the people in the pictures were? “They were the children of kaka Ahmed”, but as I looked across the room, there were only Rejan, his older brother, Ibrahim and younger sister, Sazan, and the pictures on the wall were not of them, “Where are they now”?, I whispered again to my father, “They are dead”, he whispered back to me.

On the way back home, my Father explained to me the tragic story of kak Ahmed; As a young man, he had married his cousin, and living in the countryside, the place lacked medical facility, and even in the cities back then, there were no such things as “screening tests” or “blood testing” nor “genetic testing” for newly weeded couple. The tragedy is that their blood did not match, whenever they had children, they’ll have thalassemia, an inherited disease occurring primarily among people of Mediterranean descent, that is caused by defective formation of part of the hemoglobin molecule, it cause in increasing numbers of red blood cells, the only cure is to have blood transfusions every month in order to keep the children alive. They had three children, and each of them died when they reached the age of 18, a painful slow death, for the multiple transfusions needed to sustain life lead to an iron overload throughout the tissues of the body and eventual destruction of the heart and other organs. But, they kept having children, hoping; at least one of them would be born healthy, but none were. Each month they had to have blood transfusion for the children, but even that was helpless, for by the time they reach the age of 18, they would die a slow painful death. “Will Rejan die when he is 18?”, I asked my father, he was silent for a while, then in a whisper, “God only knows”.  I felt desperate and sad, knowing that the young boy whom I had just become friend, so full of life, will die when he is 18, and no one could do anything about it.

Shadala in 2005

Shadala in 2005

I left for America few years later, forgetting all about Rejan. 11 years later after my first visit, I returned to the house again with my father, the same mud house, with the roof looking down on the village, as I entered the house I heard the same “Haji Sharif’s Son” echo through it, they recognized me at once, the mother kept looking at me, “You are grown so tall”, sadness in her voice, her green eyes full of sorrow, her hair was already getting grey. There was the same smell of freshly baked bread, goat milk and chess, sweet honey and hot tea, but yet, there was a change; beside the portrait of three children, hung a portrait of little Rejan, his death had occurred a year before. Reminiscences began, as I looked at the portrait; I recalled Rejan’s smiling face, and his ringing voice, comforting me when I was bitten by the bees, “It is nothing”. I had to walk out of the room, as I knew if I had stayed any longer, I would burst into tears. Maybe I reminded the mother of Rojan, or maybe she knew about my grief, for as I left the room, she began to shed tears, I could hear her crying.

At dinner, I sat beside Ibrahim, despite being older than Rojan, he had outlived him, he was 23, but he already looked like an old man; his face wrinkled, yellowish, with no color in his skin, yet, he was as cheerful as Rojan, laughing all the time in a ringing voice that reminded me of Rejan. His younger sister, Sazan also looked much older than her age; she also had beautiful green eyes, just like Rejan and her mother. Each month, they both needed new blood transfusion.  I looked at the mother on the corner, she was breast feeding a new baby, a new girl, kaka Ahmed kept saying that the Doctor had told them that his new girl needed no blood transfusion, was healthy to live a long life, but the doctor was not sure nor was kak Ahmed. When we drove home this time, I did not ask my father any question, we both kept silent.

Shadala in 2012

Shadala in 2012

A few days ago, once again, I visited the little house, alone this time; it was for the wedding of kaka Ahmed’s nephew, I had promised the groom to take picture at his wedding, and as I was busy taking pictures, a beautiful, green eyed little girl of 7 ran up to me, with her ringing voice, she shouted to me, “Are you Haji Sharif’s son?”, “Yes, I’m, and who you might be?”, “I’m Suzan”, “Well, Suzan khan, who is your father?”, “My Father is Ahmed?”. There it was, little Suzan, she had the same green eyes as that of Rejan, the same cheerful smile. “Can you take some picture of me? Please”. I took more than a dozen pictures of little Suzan, all the time a dreadful though in me kept growing, is she also sick? That evening, I went back to the house, no longer a mud house; a two story modern brick house, with all the modern convenience furniture decorating the place. Walking to the room, I saw the mother, she was sitting on a sofa sewing, the television was on, little Suzan was watching a cartoon of Tom and Jerry, on seeing me, the mother stood, “Haji Sharif’s Son”, her hairs all gray now, she was already an old woman.

©KarzaKardoziI sat beside kaka Ahmed at dinner, the room was crowded, many people from the wedding party coming in and going out of the room, laughter and cheerful smiles. I had the burning desire to ask kak Ahmed about little Suzan, was she was sick or not? but I dared not too. Looking at the portraits on the wall, there were now seven pictures, beside Rejan, there were also Ibrahim and Sazan and another little girl that I did not recognize. Seeing me observing the pictures, kaka Ahmed asked, “You were friend with Rejan and Ibrahim?”, “Yes, I was”

 I felt uncomfortable, and trying to change the subject, I asked him, “I didn’t know Suzan was your daughter, I took some great pictures of her at the weeding, from whom did she get such beautiful eyes?”, “From her Mother’s side of the family”, kaka Ahmed said with a smile, looking at her wife.

©KarzanKardoziI found him a cheerful man, always smiling, despite the fact that he had to live with  the agony of losing seven children. “You know, my little Rejan had the same eyes as hers, he was beautiful like her, and he was so smart, he had the brain of a grownup man. One time I took him to the city to get a blood transfusion, it was during the time of Iraq-Iran war, we went to all the civilian hospital in the city, none had any blood, and my little Rejan was already weak, he couldn’t walk, I had to carry him on my back, I feared for his life, and I became desperate, searching from one hospital to another, but he kept comforting me, ‘”we will find it daddy”’, he kept saying. I managed to get a piece of paper from a Doctor, allowing me to get blood from the military hospital in the city, back them, the Azadi park was an Iraqi military hospital. We had to walk an hour to get there, all the time carrying Rejan on my back, and he kept kissing me on the neck, ‘”we will find it daddy’”. When we got to the hospital, the place was like hell on earth, Iraqi choppers flying in and out, brining in the wounded and carrying out the dead, the road leading to the hospital was like a bloody river, red from blood of wounded and dead soldiers laying around. When I saw that, my knee gave in, I told Rejan that they will never give us blood with all the  wounded soldiers laying around, but he kept saying with a smile, ‘”we will find it daddy”’. I went to the head doctor in the hospital, at first he refused to give us the blood, but when he saw Rejan, his heart got soften, he took us to a refrigerated room, and gave us two bags of blood. When he gave me the bags, I shed tears of joy, knowing my little Rejan will live another month. He was so full of life, always happy and smiling. He liked chocolate candies, and there was a shop in the village that sold it. One day he told me to buy him some chocolate candies, I took him to the shop, there were a group of Iranian Peshmerga forces stationed around the village back then, one of them was in the shop, when he saw Rejan, he started to hug him and kiss him, “I have a little son just like him in Iran”, Rejan reminded him of his son, he took him to the shop and told him to get anything he wanted, “I will pay for it”, but Rejan would not pick anything, he did not want him to pay, when he left the shop, then he picked the chocolate candies, and I paid for it. That is how he was; he always cared for others more than himself. A week after he died, when the same Peshmerga heard about his death, he came to our house, before he reached the front door, he went down on his knee, in the mud, shouting and crying, hitting his fist to the ground, I had to go and comfort him, “Come on now, you should be comforting me, I’m the one who have lost a son, but instead, I’m comforting you.” He was crying all day, telling me that he had seen many of his friend die in battle, but never cried like he did for Rejan, “Why did God take him away, he was so innocent, so full of life”, but God’s will is God’s will. Every Friday until the day he left back to Iran he visited his grave, I wish to know where he is now, he was a gentleman, Rejan reminded him of his son, that is why he was so taken by his death”

As I looked at Suzan, with her beautiful green eyes watching the television, I could not help but ask kak Ahmed the burning question, “Does Suzan also needs blood transfusion every month?”, “No, thanks God, she is healthy. God gave her to us healthy”. Just then, little Suzan, knowing we were talking about her, ran to his father, gave him a big hug, her little arms around his nick, I could see kak Ahmed’s eyes smiling with joy, “Do you know who this young man is who has come to our house?”, he asked her, pointing to me, “Yes, he is Haji Sharif’s son”, she whispered into his ear, they both laughed.

I could not bear it anymore, at that second, the tragedy and the joy of life combined were too much to bear, I picked up my camera and walked out of the room; into the cold, windy, dark night, and my heart was heavy.