Written by Caballero Oscuro
Kilometre Zero bears distinction as the first Iraqi film to be chosen to compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes. Although it didn’t win during its appearance in 2005, its new arrival on DVD brings US viewers an enlightening glimpse of this little-understood land and its people.
The film is set in the 1980s during the closing days of the war between Iraq and Iran. Saddam Hussein ordered his army to round up Kurdish civilians as unwilling new recruits, and the film focuses on the fictitious adventures of one of these Kurds named Ako as he carries out his forced duties.
Although he’s a soldier by necessity, not choice, Ako is wise enough to attempt to carry out his duties rather than risk death. He’s quickly tasked with delivering the body of a soldier to his family with the help of an untrusting and reluctant Iraqi taxi driver. This tenuous alliance between Kurd and Arab creates more friction than friendship during their long road trip together, even escalating to a physical scuffle at one point. Surprisingly, their trip even yields some dark comedy, most prominently in a running gag that has Ako getting scolded every time they reach a military checkpoint for driving a coffin during prime daylight hours when it can be easily seen and “depresses people”, leading him to join throngs of other sidelined taxi hearses parked out of sight behind walls.
Aside from his military duties, Ako has a beautiful wife and child waiting for him at home, so he’s constantly forced with the temptation to desert his post and risk death to return to his family. His invalid father-in-law and the ever-present threat of death for leaving the army makes home life a bit less appealing, but he clearly never embraces his life as a soldier.
While the film is an intriguing look at this remote corner of the world and its history, its somewhat disjointed structure makes it hard to get a handle on exactly where it’s going. What eventually appears to be Ako’s voyage of self-discovery and evasion of the army morphs into his darkly humorous road trip before segueing into his final choice about domestic bliss. Ako doesn’t even emerge as a dominant character at first, instead ambling into the spotlight only after a lengthy setup showing the humiliating Iraqi army mistreatment of a Kurdish prisoner. In spite of these minor shortcomings, the film’s fresh voice, aided by solid performances by its cast, warrants a viewing by patrons interested in the emerging cinema of a land typically only glimpsed in newscasts.