Horror film captures Mesopotamia’s history in a dramatic form
It was going to be a film about a brutal tyrant but was disrupted when perhaps the most brutal modern day group got comfortably too close to Iraqi Kurdistan's capital city, Erbil, where it was being shot. As the extremist Islamic State's militants approached Erbil's gates in August 2014, Lauand Omar rushed his international cast and crew out of the country quickly.
"We had to stop filming in Erbil after only 2 weeks of production, mid august, due to the advance of Daesh," said Omar, referring to the Islamic State by its Arabic acronym. "We lost a lot of money due to that unexpected halt, it took me 7 month to raise money to complete filming in Jordan."
Omar's Curse of Mesopotamia tells the story of how the Kurdish new year, Newroz, came into being when a Kurdish blacksmith, named Kawa, rebelled against a bloodthirsty king, known as Azdahak. The film's theme is one too familiar for Kurds throughout history: ruthless oppression and the costly struggle for freedom. Struck by devil and having two snakes grow on his shoulders, Azdahak murdered countless young men and fed their brains to the snakes so they won't become hungry and devour his own brain. But set in a modern setting, Curse of Mesopotamia has lots of twists to make the story a proper horror one. Modern day young men and women play the role of historical figures that were involved in Newroz legend. It's got all elements of an appealing horror film: blood, murder, fear, sex and even a witch who for most of the film appears as a psychiatrist.
Stacey Thunes is an American actress and Curse of Mesopotamia was her first movie in the Middle East. She plays the complicated yet fascinating character of a psychiatrist who tries to treat a number of young men and women seemingly possessed by demons an events from the past. And the end, it turns out she herself is the personal witch of King Azdahak reincarnated generations later as a psychiatrist.
"I loved it. As an actor, playing evil is much more fun than portraying good," Thunes said. "And one could say that the Demon who possessed King Azdahak is comparable to the ‘demon’ who has possessed those people who felt they needed to join IS."
Curse of Mesopotamia is the first horror film in English made by a Kurdish filmmaker. For the Syrian Kurdish director, the story of the film is personal too.
"Being Kurdish, I grew up celebrating Newroz, I always found the legend intriguing, a evil king tricked by a demon, feeding off children's' brains to calm the snakes growing out of his shoulders, a pretty creepy story," Omar told The Kurdish Globe. "I always loved horror movies, so I took the legend and played around with it, writing a modern day horror film which plays with re-incarnation, set in the past and in the present. Cinema should be diverse, why only making war movies about the middle east? There are so many more stories to be told."
Though the film's story may appear too distant and unreal for today, the core idea has been surreally recurring throughout ages.
"The movie talks about a curse that seems to have been put on this region, former Mesopotamia," says Omar. "With the current happenings in the region, the spotlight is back on the Kurds, who have fought and suffered forever, it seems."
Omar produced the independent film with a local investor with a budget of just $800,000 and brought in an international cast from the United States, Mexico, Morocco, France and Kurdistan.
It was premiered in early November in Erbil and has since been commercially screened in theatres in a number of Iraqi cities including Erbil and Baghdad.
Omar aims for a worldwide VOD and DVD release and limited theatrical releases in some parts of the world.
The film has interesting twists often in the shape of unexpected and shocking characters appearing every now and then. A particularly interesting character in Omar's film is Zuleykha, a bloodthirsty mistress of King Azdahak brought for him from Babylon. Kaoutar Boudarraja, a well-known model and television personality in Morocco plays the role of Zuleykha.
"Zuleykha is the crazy mistress of a demon, with a real dark and ice side," Boudarraja told The Globe. "This movie breaks everything about Kaoutar Boudarraja modeling , hosting or producing TV Shows. It’s not about being sexy, beautiful or friendly girl, Zuleykha is not human and she hates humans."
This is Omar's second film and he hopes to introduce more diversity to the types of films that are produced by Kurds or come out of Kurdistan.