Starring: Zamand Taha, Sarwar Fazil
Director: Karzan Kader
Category: IIA (Kurdish)
What's fascinating about Bekas isn't just its sentimental look at Kurdish life under Saddam Hussein. The surprise of Kurdistan-born, Sweden-educated filmmaker Karzan Kader's semi-autobiographical tale is its portrayal of Middle Eastern characters rejoicing in all things American, back when the good name of the United States was still intact.
Dana (Sarwar Fazil) and Zana (Zamand Taha) are orphaned siblings living hand-to-mouth as shoe shiners in a Kurdish town in Iraq in the 1990s, presumably before the Gulf war. One day, the boys sneak onto the roof of a local theatre and get a glimpse of Superman being screened. Without any real knowledge of America, or even where it is on the map, the two brothers decide they want to go there.
"America is a huge city," 10-year-old elder brother Dana boasts, as if he knows what he is talking about. They then embark on a quest of quixotic proportions - with curious allusions to the Miguel de Cervantes classic.
It takes them a while to get moving. They have no money, and no clue about which direction to go. The duo is also side-tracked by a pretty girl whose necklace Dana retrieves from a river and hopes to return to her. There's also a donkey named Michael Jackson they purchase and turn a profit on.
Later, the two unlikely picaresque heroes encounter more dangerous obstacles, such as nasty Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints with weapons, ruthless smugglers who abandon them in the middle of a desert, and - in a needlessly overwrought moment - what appears to be a landmine.
Bekas - a Kurdish term meaning "those without family" - combines the liberal melodrama of The Kite Runner with a tenderer version of the fraternal desperation in Slumdog Millionaire. The bond of the brothers is the film's emotional core, and Kader keeps reinforcing their dependence on each other for drama.
For a docudrama about life under Saddam, there's a little too much optimism. Although the boys have no prospects and no education, Kader offers a view of life that isn't so bad. Almost everyone in the town is nice, and willing to provide the boys with spare food and water. It all goes to make Bekas easy to digest.
An admission that the children's parents were killed by the Iraqi dictator is one of the few hints at cruelty and oppression; Shiite discrimination against the Kurds is displayed when one brother pleads for help in a Shiite town and is totally ignored.
The valleys around Kurdistan are breathtakingly alluring, with their golden colour and arid air. The two child non-actors are distinguished by their lack of precocious affectations - instead of being annoyingly cute, they're loud, rough and annoying. Fazil has the kind of soulful eyes that could make him a Middle Eastern pin-up.
Chasing the impossible Kurdish dream, Bekas' unlikely sanguine tone is perhaps appropriate given that it's loosely based on Kader's own escape. But if the gush about America and Superman is supposed to be ironic, it's a little too sincere to swallow.
Bekas opens on June 13