Sina Muhammed, Transient Happiness

Happiness in Kurdistan: An Interview with ‘Transient Happiness’ Director Sina Muhammed

Kurdistani filmmaker Sina Muhammed discusses the complex interplay between joy and enduring struggle in his feminist drama, Transient Happiness.

Transient Happiness
Sina Muhammed
12 May 2023 (NL)

Against the backdrop of Northern Iraq’s compelling landscapes, filmmaker Sina Muhammed invites viewers to explore the intricate tapestry of life and resilience. Hailing from the rich cultural mosaic of Kurdistan, Muhammed captures the essence of his surroundings, weaving narratives that transcend the boundaries of conflict and emphasize the enduring pursuit of stability.

In this interview we delve into Sina Muhammed’s world, whose unique view offers a distinctive perspective on the realities of his homeland. He reveals the stories that have shaped his cinematic journey as we navigate through the interplay of art and authenticity in his compelling narratives, shedding light on the often-overlooked tales of a region striving for peace amidst unrelenting challenges.

What is the inspiration behind the creation of your award-winning film, Transient Happiness?

In family life, when a woman, whether a mother, spouse, or homemaker, devotes herself to caring for everyone without receiving the same consideration in return, it becomes a silent struggle. Even in sickness, her family may overlook her condition, leaving her to face loneliness and illness, surrounded by a seemingly bustling household. It’s a unique aspect of life often overlooked by many.

I’ve observed numerous women in my family and friends’ families throughout my life. They, too, faced a sudden transformation—white hair appearing, illness striking, and a subsequent sense of isolation settling in, all while receiving minimal care.

On the flip side, sometimes all one needs is a simple gesture from loved ones, a sweet word, a hand to hold, or a reassuring smile. Without this acknowledgment, life can feel incomplete, and the search for genuine attention becomes a heartfelt pursuit. It may seem trivial, but such moments can profoundly impact one’s life—a hug, a word of comfort, or a shared smile can reignite the spirit.

Transient Happiness offers a unique glimpse into the lives of an elderly Kurdish couple. How did you approach selecting and preparing non-professional actors for these roles to capture such authentic emotions?

I believe that stories already exist; we just need to discover them, and the characters are, in fact, real. Our task is to identify the genuine characters in our stories so that they don’t merely play a role as actors but embody their authentic roles in life.

In the initial stages, I meticulously crafted numerous pages outlining the ideal character for Transient Happiness. I conducted extensive searches to find that person, even rehearsing intensively with professional actors in an attempt to mold them into the envisioned character. However, my efforts proved futile.

Then, miraculously, I encountered the lead character of Transient Happiness on the border during a chance encounter with a lady. We engaged in a two-hour conversation, and I realized she – Parwen Rajabi – was the authentic character I sought.

A similar revelation occurred with the male character. While en route to meet the actor I had initially cast for the film, I got lost trying to find his house and wandered through different blocks. I noticed a man watering trees in front of his home. A week later, the actor declined to participate, and I recalled the face of the man I had seen watering trees. The next morning, I and my friends visited his home, and he turned out to be the genuine character of the story. Saleh Bari and I spent three years together, capturing the essence of the narrative through our collaboration.

Transient Happiness features visually striking shots, including some sunflowers, which are significant in Kurdish culture. Please elaborate on the role of this location in conveying the film’s themes.

In my house, there’s a copy of a painting by the great painter Van Gogh featuring blooming yellow sunflowers. While searching for a filming location, we came across many green fields alongside river banks. I noticed sunflower plants there, how they turned their faces toward the sun, growing in sync with its light. On cloudy days, they seemed a bit downcast, their heads drooping. It hit me that these sunflower plants somehow mirrored Transient Happiness’ lead character.

Later on, I decided to plant sunflower seeds around the house. This decision was fueled by my love for Van Gogh’s painting and the sunflower stories deeply ingrained in Kurdish culture, symbolizing the endurance of life.

You mentioned facing challenges during filming due to nearby airstrikes. How did these real-life events affect the filmmaking process, cast, and crew?  

While filming on the Turkish-Iranian border, where an unending war persists, the sound of fighter jets was a constant presence. We captured these sounds to weave into the Transient Happiness. Throughout our shooting days, the unsettling echoes of bombs targeting nearby territories were a grim backdrop, accompanied by news of casualties caused by airstrikes from Turkey and Iran.

One day, a few kilometers from our shooting spot, a shop was bombed, resulting in several casualties. This incident deeply affected us, particularly Saleh Bari, as the shop owner was his acquaintance. I’ll never forget the scene when he arrived for shooting; he was visibly saddened and stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. Though it wasn’t scripted, I felt that moment should be in the film. The only staged aspect is that it’s a film; everything else is painfully real.

The film’s title, Transient Happiness, suggests a complex interplay of joy and enduring struggle. How did you work with your cinematographer and production team to visually capture this theme?

It wasn’t challenging for us, who have been navigating the thin line between life and death since childhood. Our history is filled with tragic events like the day I was born. I came into this world on the same day my city was attacked with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein’s army, resulting in the loss of five thousand of my fellow citizens. Our moments of joy were always short-lived, and life was a constant pursuit, overshadowed by the expectation of new events and wars.

Even our houses are built with the possibility of abandonment in mind, though these wars were never our own. As a nation, our only pursuit is stability and life. We have never initiated a war against anyone, and we don’t intend to do so. The line you hear at the start of Transient Happiness—”Last night the opposite village was bombarded, and I am afraid that tonight is our village’s turn”—is a dialogue I’ve heard many times from the residents of the areas. We are all adults with stories shaped by the real experiences we’ve lived through.

Transient Happiness showcases the role of women in Kurdish society. Please tell us about the importance of highlighting this aspect and its impact on the story.

The film explores a unique mental aspect that applies to women in general, with a particular focus on Kurdish women and how the unfolding events impact their character. I strongly believe that Kurdish women are some of the world’s strongest characters, playing a profound role in sustaining life in our country. Another aspect of the film I wanted to emphasize is the misconception that feminism is only a subject for modern, advanced cities and conventions.

In the scene depicting women at work, I aimed to showcase the depth of the feminist discussions. The entire scene is inspired by real conversations I had with people in those areas during my time there. It illustrates that serious discussions about feminism are not confined to urban centers but are part of the everyday discourse, even in seemingly remote places.

Transient Happiness‘ narrative is poetic and immersive. How did you work with your team to achieve this aesthetic?

I didn’t initially approach the film with a poetic perspective. My main focus was on portraying the stark reality of life, the relentless pursuit of survival, and the very essence of being alive throughout the entire shooting process. However, as poetry and literature hold significant sway in life, eventually, everything takes on a poetic form, and a poetic view becomes essential to visualize the images of suffering.

On a personal level, I’m genuinely amazed by poetry and literature. I’ve grown up with poetry in various phases of my life, and even unconsciously, these influences have left their mark. The film, rooted in the harsh realities of life, naturally acquires a poetic quality shaped by my deep appreciation for the profound impact of poetry and literature.

As a filmmaker, you’ve worked on a diverse range of projects, from commercials to documentaries. How does your experience in these areas influence your narrative choices and creative process when making narrative fiction like Transient Happiness?

To manage my financial situation, I’m involved in producing commercials where everything is constrained, short, and rapid. This experience has taught me to value every second of shooting. I’m constantly moving, driven by the constraints, and my heart resists any urge to cut or move on until we are fully immersed in the scene. For me, Transient Happiness became a form of freedom—an opportunity to break free from constraints and savor the beauty and tranquility of each scene without rushing or interruption.

Your collaboration with the local community—planting the sunflowers and engaging with nonprofessional actors—is unusual. Can you share some memorable stories or insights from your experience on set?

Due to the limited budget for the film, we had to handle all the logistics ourselves. When we chose the primary location, the house, we decided to plant sunflower plants around it. Each day, I had to travel two hours to water the plants. This routine continued for eight months, proving particularly challenging during the early days of Covid days and the intensity of farming.

After eight months of dedicated effort, the plants finally flourished, displaying vibrant yellow flowers. However, my team disbanded a week before the shooting due to insufficient funds. It took me several days to gather a new team.

Upon my return to the location, I learned that two ladies from nearby villages had taken it upon themselves to protect the sunflower plants from birds. They cut all the flowers and saved them for me, showing genuine help and care.

I remember crying all night about the hardships we had faced. I dedicate Transient Happiness to these two women because they were the only ones who saw our efforts and difficulties. Their compassionate gesture remains etched in my memory. I will never forget their kindness.

Transient Happiness offers viewers a window into the lives of the Kurdish people. How do you hope this film will contribute to a broader understanding of their experiences and culture?

In the film, we observe the people of Kurdistan actively involved in sustaining life, seeking peace, and yearning for stability. However, juxtaposed against this, the harsh reality persists—war continues to linger in our skies, a conflict that neither belongs to us nor is something we desire. Through the film, I aimed to portray the undeniable truth: we are not living for the sake of death, but rather, we are dying for the sake of life, or more accurately, we are being murdered.

I hold onto the hope for a future when the echoes of jets no longer disrupt our sleep, we can construct our homes for enduring lives, and unforeseen events do not rattle our hearts during moments of joy. I envision a day when joy is no longer a fleeting visitor but a constant, uninterrupted by transient happiness.

Transient Happiness will be released in the US and UK on 3 April 2024.