Over a blow horn, a paunchy, middle-aged Kurdish man Kako auctions off a fighting rooster, before introducing the subsequent cockfight with a quote from Kierkegaard: ‘I am not afraid of death because when I am here he is not.’ As soon as the match commences, Kako is called away on an important phone call; he is asked by famed Kurdish musician Mamo to arrange a bus to transport him and his musician ‘sons’ to Iraq for the nation’s first post-Saddam concert of Kurdish music.
Having attached a DV video camera to the front of his bus, Kako begins his journey, picking up members of Mamo’s band, including an aged gentleman whom he retrieves from his musical instrument workshop. With these men on board, Kako reaches Mamo, whom we first see lying in an open grave. With Mamo now on the bus and barking orders, they next stop for the old man’s daughter, who teaches students on a barren Kurdish hillside; seeing this, Mamo asks his daughter to continue on as their teacher. Following an additional stop where the renowned musician is warned by another son of the potential danger ahead, Mamo has premonitions of his body lying in a second empty grave and of a woman pulling a casket.
Back on the bus, they then travel to a village, sculpted out of the side of a mountain, where 1,334 female singers have been exiled. Inside the ancient village, the women stand in rows along the tops of the house, each holding a large daf. They raise their instruments in unison and begin to play; women’s voices continue to be audible though we see no one singing. Mamo walks off with the divinely-voiced Hesho, whom he has recruited to journey with them to Kurdish Iraq.
Mamo and Hesho consequently rehearse on the bus as they continue on under the cover of night. The next day the bus is stopped and inspected by border guards with Hesho hidden from view. They are permitted to continue on, but are pulled over shortly thereafter by the same border patrol. In this instance, Hesho is discovered and is hauled away by the inspectors. Though a sympathetic Kurdish border guard smuggles Hesho back to Mamo and company in the middle of the night, she leaves clandestinely before they wake the next day.
Lacking both a singer and instruments now (the latter were destroyed during their most recent border inspection), they continue on to the village of a second, legendary musician, Kak Khalil. Unfortunately, their arrival comes one day after his death, leading a distraught – and very pale – Mamo to lie once more in a vacant grave (thus replicating the image seen previously as a premonition). However, the ethereally voiced female singer from the funeral, Niwemang, volunteers to accompany the troupe to Iraq, before also supplying the men with new instruments.
Half Moon, the fourth feature directed by Bahman Ghobadi, leading chronicler of the tragic Kurdish experience, and commissioned on behalf of Vienna’s New Crowned Hope festival commemorating the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birth, distinguishes itself from its predecessors (Zamani Bara-ye Masti Asb-ha/A Time for Drunken Horses ; Marooned in Iraq ; and Lakposhtha Parvaz Mikonand/Turtles Can Fly ) through its comparative disinclination to depict gross human suffering on screen. Rather than representing the travails of child smugglers, musicians caught in the post-Gulf War Kurdish genocide, or youthful black marketers in the landmine-saturated Turkish-Iraqi border region, Half Moon features the comparatively lighter subject of a well-known Kurdish musician travelling to perform in post-Saddam Iraq. Tonally, Half Moon is also often less severe with Allah Morad Rashtiani’s performance as the slightly slippery, though ultimately comically inept bus driver Kako (Allah Morad Rashtiani) contributing to the film’s relative levity: the most humorous of his blunders is his failure to load tape into his DV camera – he had planned to sell the recording to Kurdish television. Likewise, humour is gleaned from Kako’s punishment (he is hung upside down during Kak Khalil’s funeral) and even from his handgun, which Mamo (Ismail Ghaffari) uses to shoot off the ear of a fellow traveller. This latter incident leads Mamo’s sons to joke that the turbaned gentleman now looks like Vincent Van Gogh.
Nevertheless, Ghobadi’s humour is tempered by the tragic, which the film depicts not only in Mamo’s ultimate death, but also, and more acutely, in the political realities facing women in Ghobadi’s country of birth. Indeed, though Half Moon does not make the point directly, Iran’s legal prohibition against women singing in public pervades the work: this reality is depicted most immediately through Hesho’s (Hedieh Tehrani) arrest, but is also perceptible in Niwemang’s (aka Half Moon, Golshifteh Farahani) voiced over performance at Kak Khalil’s funeral, as well as in the overdubbed vocals of the 1,334 exiled female residents of the mythic village. In both of the latter examples, we hear women singing without seeing them do so. In this way, Half Moon shows us a nation of female singers who are legally prohibited from doing so, persecuted, and driven underground; in this regard, the subject of Ghobadi’s fourth feature prefigures that of his fifth, No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009).
Half Moon accordingly represents an opening up of the director’s subject from the experiences of the Kurdish people to the contemporary political realities of the Iranian nation. This change in orientation similarly impacts the film’s representational strategy, which moves away from the depiction of the material and bodily suffering that played such a large role in the first three Kurdish-specific works – Ghobadi’s role as chronicler of the Kurdish experience was of course to depict said experience, to show rather than to hide – to a strategy of occlusion that marks many of Iran’s latter-day art cinema achievements, and in particular those films produced by Ghobadi’s characteristically less political mentor, Abbas Kiarostami, along with his many pupils. Following in this tradition, Half Moon not only prohibits us from seeing women singing (save for Hesho secretly rehearsing), in intimate moments with men (under the bus, we see two sets of legs pressed very close together), or without their heads and bodies covered, but also from witnessing the final concert that has determined the narrative throughout. As in the post-1990 festival-oriented cinema of Kiarostami, it is for the spectator to decide whether the final performance occurs, and ultimately, whether or not Niwemang sings. The viewer becomes the agent of the film’s societal critique.