VICE Sports Q&A: Halkawt Mustafa, Director of 'El Clásico,' a Tale of Little People, Kurdistan, and Real Madrid

"El Clasico," which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, is not your typical sports movie.

by Serena Solomon
Apr 28 2016, 1:00pm

Like Verona with its Capulets and Montagues, Iraqi Kurdistan is divided: you're either with Real Madrid or with Barcelona.

When the two football clubs clash thousands of miles away in Spain, the Kurdish capital of Erbil shuts down, coffee houses fill up, TVs switch on and, according to the BBC, occasionally people are stabbed.

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The games are known as El Clásico, which is also the title of a new film from Kurdish-Norwegian director Halkawt Mustafa. Despite the intense and sometimes violent love Kurds have for another country's football, the film is an endearing bromance comedy between two actual Kurdish brothers who happen to be little people.

One brother, Alan (played by Wrya Ahmed), refuses to believe his height is an issue, not even when his proposal of marriage to a woman of regular height is rejected by her father, a staunch Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo fan. To prove his worthiness, Alan sets out on an epic journey across Iraq with his brother Shirwan (Dana Ahmed) to bring Ronaldo a handmade pair of shoes.

VICE Sports caught up with Mustafa to talk about his film, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.

You were born in Kurdistan, so how did you end up in Norway?

My family moved in 2000 from Kurdistan, when I was 14. My father was political so we moved through the United Nations. He was political against Saddam and even against the old Kurdish parties. My mother is from Halabja, where Saddam killed 5,000 people with chemical weapons. We were refugees. It was a very sudden move, especially when we moved to such a cold country. My father said, "I need a future for my child," even though I came from a rich family.

Kurds have a thing for Spanish football and games between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Why is there such a fondness for these teams?

I think with El Clásico you have drama and you have the best football players in the world, Ronaldo and [Lionel] Messi. I played football when I was a child, but when I moved to Norway I forgot about it. I was back in Kurdistan five years ago and I was inside a hotel and everywhere there was traffic. I came to the reception to ask why and he said, "You didn't see El Clásico? It is now El Clásico." When I came back to Norway, I bought tickets to Barcelona so I could go to an El Clásico.

Where did you get the idea for the movie?

It was that night at the hotel in Erbil, but it really came about when I met the brothers. They were everything to me. When I met the brothers, it was really Wow. We can do this. I tried different actors, but with the bothers I said, "Why not? We can try the little people with big dreams."

The problem was they had never been in front of the camera. They lived in a small village of about 350 people. I rented an apartment there and I lived with them for one year. It was really important to let them understand how they can stay in front of the camera and for me it was important to know what it was like to be a little person. They see everything from 95 centimeters [three feet]. Everything is difficult. Everything is high—the shower, the car, even in school they have problems.

Are the brothers football fans?

Yes. They fight about it 24/7. They fight about who is the best football player in the world. Wyra is a Real Madrid fan and his brother Dana is with Barcelona.

Did you end up meeting Ronaldo?

I spent a year asking his agent and in the end we did get to meet him. I was really happy to make Wyra's [the lead actor] dream come true. Before you meet Ronaldo, you think he is something different, but when you meet him you realize how nice he is.

Director Halkawt Mustafa was born in Kurdistan but his family fled to Norway when he was 14.

When did you write the script?

When we lived with the brothers in 2013, with another Norwegian scriptwriter. They want to fight to have a better life. The biggest challenge is that Alan never accepts that he is a short person. He wants to be higher, but he is still waiting. He wants to have a regular-sized girlfriend.

Part of the film was shot in Baghdad and in Kurdistan. What was the security situation like?

You have the feeling like you are waiting for some bomb every second. It makes you crazy. The first day of the shoot in Baghdad, there was a bombing a kilometer away and 24 people were killed. I think it was a suicide bomber. The scene where [the characters in the film] enter the city, where we shot, about 25 days later ISIS came in. I really wanted to show something different about Baghdad [other than war]. My first holiday when I was a child, it was Baghdad. I really love it. Now when you go back to Baghdad you cry.

'El Clásico' has been screened in cinemas in Norway. Further distribution plans are still being finalized. Follow the film's Facebook page for updates.