Dir/scr: Hiner Saleem. Fr-Kurd. 2005. 96mins

One person's illegal war is another's act of sweetliberation in Kilometre Zero. Inspired by the toppling of SaddamHussein, Iraqi Kurdistan director Hiner Saleem has made a film that vividlyilluminates the brutal realities of life under the tyrant's rule. Pettydictators lurk at every checkpoint, people are casually executed at the side ofthe road and hatred flourishes in the bitter divide between Arab and Kurd.

Despite Saleem's claimsthat this is not a political film, it is hard not to perceive it in those termsand occasionally righteous anger gets in the way of a more incisive drama.

Nonetheless, this has somecomic touches to lighten the overall tone and a poignancy in the ultimateresolution of the story. There should be enough interest in the subject matterand the next film from the Vodka Lemon director to ensure modestarthouse prospects for this competition entry. The film premiered incompetition at Cannes.

The film begins at the verymoment of Saleem's inspiration in 2003 with radio reports of the fall of SaddamHussein. We are then reminded that in 1988, Chemical Ali killed 182,000 Kurds.

In 1988, Ako (Kirik) vowsto flee Iraq. His wife Selma (Bilgin) refuses to countenance such a thought aslong as her sick, aged father is alive and dependent on them. There is no wayto resolve the issue and soon Ako is drafted and sent to the frontline of theIran-Iraq War. We see the extent of the hatred reserved for the Kurds in thetreatment of Ako's friend Sami (Qeladizeyi) who is continually beaten,humiliated and made to feel less than human.

Ako becomes a desperate manand even lies in the trenches with his leg in the air hoping it might be shotor blown off. It would be a small sacrifice to pay if it meant he would be sentback to his wife and son and left alone. Then, he is assigned to accompany amartyr's corpse to his family. It could be his only way of getting home exceptthe driver (Ekrem) is an Arab who hates Kurds and the journey is fraught withtension, hostility and bitter irony.

Maturing into a road movieset against the barren landscapes of Iraq, Kilometre Zero is at its mostimpressive on a purely visual level. It is beautifully composed bycinematographer Robert Alazraki who constantly frames characters in doorways orthrough windows underlining the way in which they are trapped by theircircumstances. Humans are often seen against imposing mountain ranges, dwarfedby the country and its history.

Much of the wry humour isalso visual, with a giant statue of Saddam Hussein criss crossing the countryto show there was no escape from the dictator's image or presence. At onepoint, Ako and the driver are ordered to a rest area where others cars withflag-draped coffins stretch as far as the eye can see - all glorious martyrsaccording to the regime. It is the absurdity observed in everyday life thatcaptures just a hint of the more freewheeling approach that Saleem brought tothe award-winning Vodka Lemon.

The dialogue tends to beless sophisticated with conversations that exist to illustrate a point ratherthan convey the natural exchanges of everyday life. This is particularly trueof the scenes between Ako and the driver but then their whole relationship isbased on volatility. Within a heartbeat they can go from shared laughter torolling around fighting in the dirt to calmly swapping pictures of theirrespective children. They even acknowledge that on a personal level each findsthe other to be charming and decent, but that still doesn't detract from thefact that they are sworn enemies.

The film's title is areference to Saleem's belief that Iraq has refused to move forward throughoutits 80-year history and remains at the starting point of latitude zero. Hisfilm still ends on a note of hope back in the Paris of 2003 with the news thatSaddam has gone and some possibility of progress or renewal might be possible.

Kilometre Zero may seem a little worthyand heavyhanded at times but there is enough human interest in the charactersand their journey to provide an emotional connection for the arthouse viewer.

Prod cos: Memento Films Prods, Hiner Saleem Prods, LaCinefacture
Int'l sales: Memento Films International
Alexandre Mallet-Guy,Hiner Saleem, Emilie Georges
Robert Alazraki
Prod des:
Kamal Hamarash
Anna Ruiz
Nikos Kipourgos, Yan Axin
Main cast:
Nazmi Kirik, EyamEkrem, Belcim Bilgin, Ehmed Qeladizeyi, Nezar Selami