SULAIMANI, Kurdistan Region – The flight ban put a damper on Sulaimani’s film festival that opened with a red carpet ceremony on Sunday. Many invitees were unable to attend and those who did arrive are worried about being able to leave, but most were pleased with the welcome they have received from Kurds and are not concerned with their safety.
“We invited guests from 105 countries worldwide, including New Zealand, USA, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and many more including the Middle East, but most of them could not make it because of the flight ban,” said Hemin Hussein, communications director for the Slemani International Film Festival (SIFF).
The festival is in its second year.
Baghdad imposed a ban on international flights to the Kurdistan Region as a punitive measure after last week’s independence referendum. The flight ban came into force on Friday.
Hussein said that the guests who couldn’t make it included well-known actors and actresses, film makers, producers and important members of the jury judging the film competitions.
“We had one jury member, a well-known film maker from Canada who arrived at the airport and then was told his flight was cancelled by Turkish airlines,” he said.
“A total of 150 VIP guests were invited from the Kurdistan Region and other countries, but only about 30 percent will be able to attend due to the flight ban,” said Program Manager Lina Raza.
Two special guests came from Iran were forced to take a land route across the border.
Fatima Mohammed, who will participate in a festival panel, said that organizers arranged for a driver to bring her across the border.
“They brought me directly here from Iran with a bodyguard, so it was more safe than anything,” Mohammed said.
Kambuzia Partovi, a well-known writer and film maker from Iran, said he also had complications travelling to the Kurdistan Region due to the flight ban.
“I had to fly from Tehran to a Kurdish city on the border and from there, we had to take a car across the border,” Partovi said. “The flight from Tehran was only an hour but the drive took over five hours.”
One jury member and film maker and film critic from Japan, Takayuki Yoshida, said he arrived on Friday just before the flight ban went into effect and mentioned this was his first time visiting the Middle East.
“It’s very interesting, especially since this is an important moment in the history of the Kurdistan Region after the referendum,” Yoshida said.
He said he was honored and thankful to the organizers for inviting him to Sulaimani and was excited to be in Kurdistan, but was optimistic about the flight ban being lifted.
“I will stay until October 7. The airport will probably be open again by this time so I’m not worried about anything,” he said.
Another first time visitor to the Middle East and Artistic Director of Tennessee’s Nashville Film Festival, Brian Owens arrived in Sulaimani early Friday morning to take part in the festival as a jury member for the International Feature Films category.
“I was packed and ready to travel before any word came out about the possible blockade so I was determined to come anyway,” he said.
Although he initially had concerns about returning home, he said staff was optimistic about the blockade being lifted. In the meantime, he was enjoying his time in Kurdistan.
“The Kurdish people are so warm and loving,” Owens said. “Nashville has the largest Kurdish population in the United States so I’m familiar with the Kurdish people, but when they’re your host, you realize just how strong that warmth really is.”
Owens said this was an interesting trip because he is due to fly out on October 11, assuming the blockade is lifted, and travel to Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia where a referendum vote for independence was held on Sunday, one week after Kurdistan’s referendum.
“I strongly believe that the Kurdish people deserve their homeland,” Owens said.
“Injustices have been thrust upon them for over a century now,” he added. “I hope cool heads will prevail through negotiations and that a homeland will be created for these wonderful people.”
One British national attending the film festival, Orlando Wilson, who lives in the US, has been in Kurdistan for three weeks for business. He said he was frustrated with the travel ban.
“I have a flight out from Dusseldorf on Tuesday which I think I’m going to miss so it looks like I’ll be staying for at least another week.”
“I do think the Kurds need independence,” he added. “But not at the moment.”
British-Kurdish film maker Alan Sabir Amin from Manchester arrived in Kurdistan in early September as he had a documentary being screened at the Duhok International Film Festival that will also be shown at the SIFF.
Amin was a bit concerned about the flight ban as he is scheduled to return to the UK on October 14.
“The referendum is a step toward independence,” Amin said. “But the political matters make it very complicated.”
He added that he had colleagues at SIFF from Argentina, Peru, and Spain and none of them felt any concerns about security in Kurdistan, however the flight ban could prevent them from returning home on time.
SIFF will screen 170 films over the next week with connections to over 40 countries including the US, the UK, Turkey, Iran, and many other countries across Europe and Asia and the Middle East.
“At the moment, we’re not sure of the decision on how long the flight ban will be, but we are going to do our best to ensure our international guests get home safely,” said Communications Director Hussein. “It would be a huge shame if we would not be able to get them back to their home country.”
Since Friday evening, when the last international flights departed Kurdistan Region, only domestic flights have passed in and out of Erbil and Sulaimani airports.