In 2017, Kurdish people were represented on the news like never before. Kurdish peshmerga were praised for their heroic efforts in fighting off ISIS, and images of fighters circulated widely in newspapers all over the world. While Xeyal Qertel was pleased by this – most people around the world have never even heard of Kurdistan – she became worried that Kurds would be invariably associated to the image of the soldiers. That is when she got the idea to create the New York Kurdish Film & Cultural Festival:
“The fearless army of Kurdish women against the terrorist group ISIS/DAESH attracted a lot of attention from around the globe. Their bravery and determination hit the news headlines. Even fashion companies imitated their dresses. Therefore, everyone was focusing on depicting Kurds as courageous fighters. Even though I was proud of my Kurdish sisters and brothers’ fight for humanity and democracy, I was also worried about Kurds known for being good fighters, nothing more. Kurds are native habitants of the Middle East, and have lived in Kurdistan for centuries. Kurdish culture goes back to ancient Greek time. Hence, Kurds are sophisticated in music, artisanship, oral history, poetry, folkloric dance, performance, and now in moving images. I wanted to create a space to introduce the rich Kurdish culture, and to contribute to democracy by giving a voice to this underrepresented nation, which is the largest without a state.” Xeyal Qertel
More than just space to screen films and documentaries by Kurdish directors, the NYKFCF is a safe space where the Kurdish diaspora can speak their language and celebrate their culture with others. Thanks to Xeyal Qertel and the NYKFCF, we get a more exhaustive picture of Kurdish culture and life in Kurdistan. One that is not just rooted in war and fighting.
For Ms Qertel, cinema is essential to understand a culture. It even helped her reckon with her own identity. Growing up in Turkey, Qertel had little access to Kurdish culture and language, which was repressed. Kurdish music, or any forms of cultural expression, were prohibited. For many years, she did not even realise what being Kurdish entailed; her parents hid this from her, fearing the consequences. When she finally discovered more about her origins and traditions, she found that cinema and movies were the best way of representing the daily successes and struggles of humanity. Kurdish films, specifically, are a great way of representing the reality of discrimination and segregation Kurdish people experience on the daily. Finally, Kurdish films are a unifying. They represent the similar culture shared in all four parts of Kurdistan, which is incredibly important to create a sense of unity.
The Kurdish Film & Cultural Festival has grown immensely since 2017, both in terms of its audience and in what the festival offers. In September 2021, they celebrated their 5th edition. One of Mrs Qertel’s goals with the festival has always been to contribute to the New York cultural melting pot. She is successfully doing this – raising awareness about Kurds and getting New Yorkers from all over the world interested in learning about this culture. Beyond the film viewings, the festival also displays Kurdish outfits, music, poetry, literature and – before Covid – food.
Aside her founding role in the NYKFCF, Xeyal Qertel has many other interests. She is an educator, a mother, a human rights’ activist, and she is especially interested in woman’s rights. When I asked her whether her woman’s rights activities intersected with the NYKFCF, she told me that this year’s edition had mostly featured films made by Kurdish women – something she was especially proud of because she wanted to showcase the essential role woman play in society.
The New York Kurdish Film & Cultural Festival is also holding its first virtual event until the end of October. For two weeks, people interested in learning more about Kurdish culture can join and watching films online free of charge. Mrs Qertel and the rest of the festival’s team carefully curate the films to ensure their high quality, and to ensure the directors are Kurdish or talk about Kurdish films. We strongly recommend you tune in, it is a great way to relax but also to learn something new. Veysi Altay’s documentary film Nû Jîn (New Life) (2017) is particularly excellent. It explores the Kobani resistance and Kurdish fighters’ fight to protect their city from ISIS.
“We are 40 million Kurds, and our traditions, our language, our songs, are being labelled as terrorists,” Ms Qertel told Justice for Kurds. “It is an essential human right to be able to exercise your own identity. How come anyone can be punished just because they are singing in their own mother tongue?”.
Xeyal Qertel is an inspiring figure, and an important member of the Kurdish diaspora in New York. With humanitarian ambitions, she is successfully growing interest and knowledge about Kurds and Kurdistan abroad all the while creating a safe space to express any identity.
We strongly recommend looking at the online version of the Kurdish Film Festival. And for readers in New York, mark your calendar for the 2022 edition of the New York Kurdish Film & Cultural Festival!
To access the online version of the Kurdish Film and Cultural Festival, you can follow this link (free screening until October 21): https://www.e-flux.com/video/programs/423521/new-york-kurdish-film-and-cultural-festival-2021/
To find out more about Xeyal Qertel, you can see her interview with e-flux: https://www.e-flux.com/video/424332/xeyal-qertel-nbsp-in-conversation-with-lukas-brasiskis/
For more information about the New York Kurdish Film & Cultural Festival, head to their website: https://www.nykfcf.com/