Iraqi Filmmakers Find Their Voice

By Valerie Milano

Despite the ongoing struggle to stabilize Iraq, a new generation of filmmakers is emerging from the shadow of Saddam Hussein’s fallen regime with the help of the international community. The feature documentary, The Dreams of Sparrows, which depicts post-war life in Baghdad, was produced by the IraqEye Group, a collaboration between American producers and Iraqi filmmakers whose stated mandate is to “revitalize Iraqi cinema within the international cinema community.”

The Filmclub Berlin-Baghdad hopes to establish a film library archive and educational center in Baghdad to help promote appreciation for, and accessibility of, European films. German director Tom Tykwer, a sponsor of the Filmclub Berlin-Baghdad, said, “It’s a great opportunity to encourage a cultural exchange between two countries which, until now, have been unable to learn about each other’s respective cinematic traditions.”

In the 1940s, Iraq had a flourishing film industry, but after the Baath party came to power in 1968, a new age of censorship crippled creativity. Then after the United Nations imposed sanctions against Iraq, the industry disappeared completely, in large part due to the inability to pay for film or equipment. Plus celluloid itself was banned under the sanctions because the chemicals in it were considered “dual-use.” The only Iraqis making films were those living elsewhere in the world. But almost immediately after American troops invaded Baghdad, efforts began to revive the industry.

Rijin Sahakian from FilmIraq, based in Washington D.C., said it is important to both “expose the hardships that Iraqi filmmakers and artists have gone through in the past, and…to support their work in the present. Filmmakers in Iraq face immense challenges in creating new works. Not only have their filmmaking institutions been under the auspices of the state, and severely censored, but today it is nearly impossible to tell the stories that have been silenced for decades, due to a lack of understanding of the transformative qualities of film.

“As an Iraqi-American woman, I have felt the injustice of Iraqis being unable to communicate to the outside world, and the longing to have the international community understand who the Iraqi people are outside of newspaper headlines and political debate.” She continued, “Film can act to bridge this gap, allowing this generation of Iraqis, for the first time, the chance to create works that will illuminate their individual and collective history, experience and vision.”

The first feature film to be shot in post-war Iraq is Under Exposure by director Oday Rasheed, which looks at American-occupied Baghdad through the eyes of six different characters. Rasheed is a founding member of Al-Najeen, which translates to The Survivors, a group of writers, poets, directors and artists from different ethnic backgrounds and faiths. The group was organized in 1992 and began meeting secretly to put on private play productions and poetry readings. Less than three weeks after U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad, Al-Najeen published their “founding statement.”

Although Rasheed had the opportunity to immigrate to America during Hussein’s reign and live with an uncle, he chose to stay in Iraq. “I believe in something - the filmmaker belongs in his place,” he said. “I built my entire memory in this place. If we asked Quentin Tarantino to make a film about Baghdad, he would not do as good a job as me. And if I wanted to make a film about L.A., I would not make as good a film as him. I want to feel all the pain, all the changes in Baghdad.

“Baghdad, for many years, was the center of culture in the Arab world. And I’m talking about hundreds of years. So I think that now we need to rebuild our minds, not just the buildings. Until recently, it was simply impossible to present independent world cinema in Iraq,” Rasheed said. “Every single film was checked by Saddam’s officials, and in most cases, confiscated. Although that’s over now, we’re being confronted with another form of censorship - pressure from fundamentalist Islamic groups.”

To finance the film, Rasheed and other members of Al-Najeen sold many of their possessions. The film they used was from 1952 and the director wrote emails to Kodak Corporation, which agreed to process the outdated film for free. Using the half-century-old film inspired Rasheed to come up with the movie’s title, which he says refers to both the film stock as well as the current generation of Iraqi artists. “We live lives that are underexposed, from Saddam Hussein to now,” explained Rasheed. “We have been waiting for years to get this chance.”

While Iraqi filmmakers flex their creative muscles, others are finding the country a topic unto itself. In the aftermath of Hussein’s fall from power, Iraq has also become a magnet for foreign documentary filmmakers, despite the very real dangers that continue to exist in the country. Cameraman Fred Scott, whose documentary, Iraq: The Cameraman’s Story aired on the BBC, admitted there’s an increasing risk to filmmakers, especially from so-called friendly fire.

“It’s a question that I and a lot of other colleagues have been giving a lot more thought to, partly because it seems that in the past few years the television cameraman has become a preferred target. Neither side particularly wants you around. So why do I still want to do it? I think it’s important. You have to witness and record things.” Even so, he acknowledged, “I’m not under any illusion that any army, no matter what they say, is going to take that many precautions over the fate of journalists. I don’t have much credibility on the home-front telling my family, ’Don’t worry, nothing will happen’” .

Australian filmmaker Tahir Cambis said outsiders have to be constantly vigilant because Iraq is “a very traumatized society. No one knows who to trust, no one knows who is working for the Americans.” He also noted that even translators could be “spotters” looking to round up Western victims for kidnappers.