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Baghdad hopes for better film festival

Iraqi filmgoers are hoping this year’s Baghdad International Film Festival will be an improvement over last year, when low-quality films marred the event.
Iraqis sit and watch a show during the opening ceremony of the 5th Baghdad International Film Festival (BIFF) in the Iraqi capital on October 6, 2013. AFP PHOTO / SABAH ARAR        (Photo credit should read SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Baghdad is preparing for its upcoming film festival this month, with hopes it will be an improvement over last year’s disaster.

Forty-five narrative, short and documentary films were meant to be screened during the Baghdad Arab Cultural Capital festival of 2013, but by the end of the festival, only one was screened. The only narrative film that saw the light was “Baghdad, a Pink Dream” by director Faisal al-Yassiri, only to be withdrawn after the first screening in January 2014.

Opinions about the reason behind the withdrawal differed greatly. Some said that the movie glorified the era of Saddam Hussein, while others believed it was not up to standard. The speculated reasons were many, but the public and critics were not even given a chance to form an opinion.

Disputes in the Iraqi cultural backstage intensified, some of which were made public by the media. It was said that the majority of the movies were too subpar to be screened, and that the activities organized for the festival proved to be a mere joke, on which $500 million was spent.

The resignation of one of the festival’s film jurors flared up the dispute even more. Fares Tohme al-Tamimi decided to resign, protesting the low quality of these films and affirming that the majority of them were not good enough to be screened.

Tamimi accused then-Minister of Culture Saadoun al-Dulaimi of unprofessionalism in dealing with the subject. Subsequently, the issue became a hot topic for the media, with different outlets leveling accusations of corruption and irresponsibility against the Ministry of Culture. This raised concern among artistic and cultural circles, amid the eerie silence of the Ministry of Culture and its decision not to comment.

Ahmad Abdel Hussein is the editor-in-chief of al-Qurtas news website, which published documents that allegedly exposed the corruption of the festival.

During a phone interview with Al-Monitor, he said that the documents published on his website were issued by the ministry in limited numbers to be shared in the media. The ministry believed that by doing so it would disprove accusations of impropriety about its expenditures. However, the documents condemned the ministry, as the expenditures proved to be illogical and raised suspicions of corruption.

“Large amounts were spent on undeserving activities, and some expenditures were unjustified or nonexistent. [Some activities were not up to festival standards], such as ‘Baghdad, a Pink Dream,’ which was no better than a 1970s soap opera,” Abdel Hussein told Al-Monitor.

Akil al-Mandalawi, director-general of the Public Cultural Relations Department in the Ministry of Culture said the Cinema and Theater Department, affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, was responsible for screening the movies. In a phone interview, he told Al-Monitor that three months ago, he raised the issue of the films with the ministry’s adjudicating committee. Accordingly, a decision was issued with the approval of former Minister Dulaimi, compelling the Cinema and Theater Department to screen the finalized movies. However, the department did not respond.

Nawfal Abu Raghib, director-general of the Cinema and Theater Department, referred the issue once again to the Ministry of Culture, acquitting his department from any responsibility for these movies. He told Al-Monitor that the department provides artistic opinion and was not responsible for any legal or administrative consequences. He also stressed that the “department is not responsible for choosing, giving permits to, or referring the movies or for their financial contracts. This responsibility is that of the Ministry of Culture, which referred these movies in a symbolic gesture [to the department] directly through the bureau of the minister.”

It seems that what was being discussed in the media about the low quality of the films had some truth to it. Abu Raghif affirmed that his department filed requests to reconsider some of the films. The Ministry of Culture’s High Commission, which comprises the minister and the cultural adviser, refused all the requests, saying that it was too late to make changes. This is why, according to Abu Raghif, the quality of the films plummeted, holding the ministerial committees that referred the movies and the directors themselves responsible for this.

However, how could the level be improved if the movies were not screened? It seems that no ministerial body was able to answer this question. Abu Raghif explained the issue differently than the way the media tackled it, saying that the view proposing that these films should have been screened is wrong. “These films were referred during the festival and there was no decision to screen them during the festival. The production of the films takes place according to the period of time stipulated in the contracts,” he said.

If this is true, the ambiguity surrounding these films and their fate is clear. However, this does not explain why the finalized movies have yet to be screened, especially since the Iraqi audience had been eager to watch them after all the buzz.

“Finalizing and screening these movies is not the most important thing,” Abu Raghif said. “What is more important is for Iraq and the Ministry of Culture to find a chance to participate in international festivals, knowing that the ministry and the Cinema and Theatre Department did not receive any request from any [international] festival to screen these movies.”

Abu Raghif said that no less than four narrative movies will be screened during the Baghdad International Film Festival in October. Amid this ambiguity, the Iraqi audience is hoping that these four films, if they are screened, will be of remarkable artistic quality that will compensate for the frustration of the long wait.

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