A nerve-racking portrait of a Kurdish colonel, who disarmed thousands of roadside bombs and mines armed only with his courage and a pair of wire cutters.
Hogir Hirori and Shinwar Kamal’s The Deminer is a portrait of heroic, real-life Kurdish deminer Colonel Fakhir, a local legend in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Duhok and beyond for his work disarming thousands of landmines and explosive devices across the region. Hirori explains Fakhir was a colonel in the Iraqi army when Saddam Hussein was removed from power in 2003.
“After the fall of Hussein, he went to Mosul to work with the Americans. It was there that he witnessed so many people being either killed or maimed by landmines and decided to become a deminer,” explains Hirori. His mode of operating is a far cry from the Hollywood image of Jeremy Renner dressed in a protective suit and face-shield in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker.
Armed with little more than nerves of steel, a rudimentary flak jacket and a pair of clippers, Fakhir picks his way through land-mined fields and booby-trapped houses, relying purely on his experience and intuition. “People said he could smell the bombs and had a sort of sixth sense about where the bombs were placed. Anyone who worked with him felt safe,” says Hirori.
After losing a leg in 2008, Fakhir was forced out of the Iraqi army and returned to his hometown of Duhok, coming out of retirement again in 2014 after the city and its surrounding areas came under attack from Islamic State fighters.
Kurdish-born Hirori, who has lived in Sweden since he was a child, first met the colonel when he was making his debut documentary The Girl Who Saved My Life, capturing the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the area due to the rise of ISIS. “I had known about him for some time. He was a local hero in Duhok, which is my home city. I approached him straightaway and asked if I could make a film about him,” Hirori recounts.
“He replied, ‘There are so many people who have tried to make a film about me, but no-one has ever completed the film with the material’,” he continues. “I insisted, but Fakhir said ‘There is another guy making a film right now and you’ll have to ask him if it is ok first’.”
The ‘other guy’ was Kamal, who hesitated briefly and then decided to collaborate. The Duhok-based filmmaker shot most the recent material of Fahkir operating around his home city. The early Mosul footage comes from Fakhir's personal archive, as do the family scenes. Kamal, like Hirori, had been inspired by Fakhir’s bravery. Quizzed on whether he feared for his life as Fakhir snipped the wire on yet another improvised device, Kamal replies: "It was very dangerous when he was disarming the bombs, but at the same time I always felt safe with him and the most important thing was to document his life, so everything else was secondary.”
The pair are now developing separate projects. “I have two projects in development. I don’t want to go into details, but they’re both set in Sweden and won’t be about war. After three films about war, I need to move on,” Hirori says. Kamal is working on a film capturing contemporary life in Mosul following its liberation from ISIS in September after three years of bloody occupation by the group.
In the meantime, as The Deminer starts its festival run the directors hope it will bear testimony to Fakhir’s bravery and also expose the scourge of landmines in the region. “We want to show the vast number of landmines that have been laid. It’s more than most people can imagine. This has been a problem for many years and will carry on being a problem for years to come.”
“We also wanted to show what one human being can do to make a change. What Fakhir did was unique. He was a father of eight. He had been wounded so many times, he lost a leg and nearly died and the motivation to save other people's lives was so much greater.