Mary Ann Smothers Bruni, Director. Ms. Bruni’s first film depicting Kurdish women, Quest for Honor, debuted in competition at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Photographs and writings from her 17 year documentation of Kurdish women appeared in her book Journey through Kurdistan as well as The Washington Post, WorldView and the International Herald-Tribune.
In September 2005, I received a phone call from my long time Iraqi Kurdish friend Hero Talabani—camerawoman, video producer and now filmmaker. She called from New York where her husband Jalal Talabani, first Kurdish president of Iraq, was speaking at the UN.
“When are you coming back to Kurdistan?” she asked. She wanted me to return with a new project. “What about a film?” she inquired. And I thought,”Why not a film?To evaluate that suggestion, I met with two friends: Elizabeth Warnok “B. J.” Fernea and Frances Tarlton”Sissy” Farenthold. All of us had long histories with Iraq. B. J. first went to Iraq as a bride, and her first book Guest of the Shiekh: An Ethnographic Study of the Women of Southern Iraq, is still in print after forty years. Sissy visited Iraq three times on peace missions for women. I had first entered Iraq in April 1991 by walking up a mountain above Circurca, Turkey, and joining the two million or more Kurds who were fleeing from Saddam’s gunships. That led to three years in Iraqi Kurdistan and a book and exhibition Journey through Kurdistan.
The three of us agreed that video and film were the best ways to capture the stories of Iraq and its women. As events turned out in Iraq, we could only work in the Kurdish area. We dubbed our efforts the Zhinan (Sorani Kurdish for “women”) project. A scout in December 2005 proved our project possible, and we put together a crew and advisors for two subsequent shoots in 2006. Her eventually terminal illness sadly removed B. J. from the project. Sissy continued as Executive Producer and I became Director. In 2007 our crew met the women of the Women’s Media Center and began to document their work.
The stories that we eventually filmed came about slowly. We did not craft them. We discovered them. Along with the exploration and discovery, we documented and we filmed. We have over 300 hours of footage documenting life in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as interviews with women judges, politicians, physicians, and poets.
We went to Iraqi Kurdistan to record the success stories of women rebuilding Iraq. Once there, the narrative of women struggling with the region’s worst nightmare—the horror of “honor killing” and the related practices of trading and selling women– became its own story and in time a film.
While international human rights organizations work to combat the practice of honor killings, it is the women activists, such as those portrayed in Quest for Honor who wake up to the every day realities and boldly face these horrors head on. Cooperating with local police, doctors, lawyers, and politicians in their communities, these brave women save the lives of many women, while working to change mentalities and prevent future crimes. Without proper analysis and knowledge the West cannot appropriately support the women, lawmen, and governments who are fighting this plague without being seduced into believing negative cultural stereotypes and further victimizing these communities.
Our subjects show how investigations of honor killings are handled and the lawmen’s, activists’ and villagers’ diverse attitudes towards these murders. They allow us to experience safe houses, markets, and daily work both in the countryside and cities. The strange beauty that is Rania opens up in walks and drives through that city’s streets and its adjacent fields and mountains.
Kurds were on both sides of our cameras—busy at work as co-producers, assistant directors, story consultants, cameramen, production managers, advisors and translators. While we valued expert opinions, we let the Kurds involved tell their own story and reveal themselves without explanations or interruptions from outsiders or experts.
While Quest for Honor could not have been filmed in some countries, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was not only open, but was extremely helpful to our filming. The KRG itself is fighting the problem of “honor killing” with laws by creating better safe houses and establishing a special Agency to Prevent Violence Against Women. That agency gave us exclusive access to follow the high profile case of Jasmin (pseudonym), the woman who was shot at Asuda Safe House, whose story is featured in Quest for Honor.