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Iraqi cinema finds new direction

Iraq’s film industry has long been stunted by a lack of funding and governmental restrictions, but young and energetic directors and producers are working to turn it around.
A resident walks at the entrance of a cinema in Baghdad April 26, 2011. Iraq once had 82 cinemas, 64 of them located in the teeming capital, home to about 7 million of Iraq's 30 million people. One by one, they closed during the Saddam era, when the government controlled the selection and importation of films, until only five remained at the time of the invasion. The insurgency that followed and killed tens of thousands of people made Iraqis afraid of being in public places and crowds. They chose the relati

BAGHDAD — Traveling in an old car, young Iraqi filmmakers had taken off at noon Feb. 18 from the headquarters of the Iraqi Independent Film Center on Al-Rasheed Street, heading toward the National Theater. They were accompanied by a folk music band to celebrate the 6th anniversary of the center and the 12th year of independent Iraqi cinema.

The first Iraqi feature film to be made after the fall of the Baathist regime was “Ghayr Saleh” (“Invalid”), directed by Oday Rasheed. The movie was produced independently. Following that came British director Mohammed Darraji's “Dreams,” which tackles the chaos that spread in Iraq over the last three decades.

Iraq's Independent Film Center is a dream come true for young people who aspire to make cinematic productions that do not follow any ideology nor succumb to the whims of the government, but instead reflect real life concerns, all the while meeting technical and international standards.

Iraq does not have a long history of filmmaking, with just 100 films from the declaration of the Iraqi state in 1921 to the fall of President Saddam Hussein in 2003. Most of the films produced were aimed at mobilizing people. They praised the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s and Hussein, while others were purely commercial, including mediocre comedies.

During the Feb. 18 celebration, the Independent Film Center showed six feature and short films, some of which had won awards at international festivals. Among them was director Salman Salman's “Hadiaat Abi” (“Gift of My Father”), which won the the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival's Crystal Bear Award. Organizers distributed a document detailing the center's productions over the past six years.

Also at the gathering, the center's managers broke red pens, a symbolic reference to the pens of officials who obstructed a proposal for the Ministry of Culture to fund films for the center to produce. Mohanad Hayal, director and media center manager who oversees young filmmakers in training, said, “Breaking a pen is part of fighting the corruption prevailing in the country in general, and in the cinema sector in particular.” He told Al-Monitor, “The center has produced films that received 100 Arab and international awards. It is high time we celebrated these achievements.”

The Independent Film Center has produced some 20 films since its establishment, including features, documentaries and shorts. Despite all the efforts of youth in cinema production in a country crawling with security tensions, not to mention political conflict, movie theaters in Iraq remain a mess. Not one has been renovated because of the government’s lack of interest in cultural infrastructure.

Hayal lamented, “Our center has communicated with the government through the Ministry of Culture and the parliament to renovate and build movie theaters, but our proposals went unheard. After the negligence we were shown, the center resorted to mobile cinema, which is a high-resolution big screen that shows films in the open air.”

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Wareth Kwaish, an ambitious young man who produced his first film, “Once, They Were Here,” said, “The center gives us the space to learn a lot through allowing us to brainstorm ideas and develop them.” Kwaish added, “The Iraqi Independent Film Center develops our tools and brings us closer to the techniques of making movies.”

The center has managed to show 45 films in 14 Iraqi provinces, reaching the countryside, including al-Ahwar, the marshes in southernmost Iraq. The center has tried to expand its activities, but the Iraqi government bureaucracy has hampered its efforts. Hayal said, “In 2006, the center submitted a 30-page project to the Iraqi parliament explaining a mechanism to establish a fund to support independent cinema. The project was supposed to be brought to the attention of the parliament, but it was ignored.”

The center is now focusing on producing six films by prominent filmmakers, including Rasheed. His new film is an adaptation of the book “Ya Maryam,” by the Iraqi novelist Sanan Antoun. The novel follows the lives of Christians amid the security chaos and spreading violence, including the threats they face.

Hayal noted, “The center seeks to raise a future generation of young filmmakers who are aware of the new techniques in cinema production.” He said he aims to “create independent cinema that does not obey ideologies.” He explained, "This cannot happen unless there are independent cinema productions and enough support from several festivals, in addition to an international fund.”

Young filmmakers meet daily in an old Baghdad house built in the early 1920s. The theater directorate had gifted the house to the center upon its establishment as a place to hold workshops and to develop concepts that would eventually be brought to the big screen.

The future of cinema in Iraq depends on the individual efforts of young directors. It is an emerging experiment requiring workshops and scholarships to European countries to foster growth. The Iraqi Ministry of Culture has not yet turned its attention to the importance of the Iraqi film industry, which is capable of delivering humanitarian messages that could potentially help curb the extremism and sectarian conflict that have afflicted Iraq for more than a decade.

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