Filmmaker Q&A: Aaron Raskin

Producer, The Dreams of Sparrows

In preparation for the article “The Docs of War” (January/February 2006), I interviewed several filmmakers about their experiences making documentaries about the Iraq war. Aaron Raskin, the American producer of The Dreams of Sparrows, the first doc made by an Iraqi crew to come out of the country since the U.S. invasion, emailed me his answers to a few questions via a hijacked wireless signal from a rooftop in Mexico, where he is working on his next co-production with Dreams‘ Iraqi director Hayder Mousa Daffar. — LU

Leif Utne: Since The Dreams of Sparrows came out last March, what kind of response have you had?

Aaron Raskin: It is interesting, when we first started screening the film people didn’t…get it. Industry people still don’t get it, but the audiences increasingly understand the nuance presented. Perhaps American media had reached such a polarized state circa 2002-3 and now that trend is retreating.

As I said, the response has been improving, though our audience response has always been very strong. The world premiere was at SXSW and usually several people left crying, hugging Hayder, asking how they could help. The industry was initially incredibly…hostile…to the release of this film. Currently the trend in

Documentary filmmaking is to make doc’s that are like narratives. Doc filmmakers practically storyboard their docs these days. I was raised on such verite docs as “Man with a Movie Camera”, which I don’t think most acquisitions execs have ever heard of. I’d rather make an art film than a blockbuster and that’s what we ended up doing, at least in the eyes of the industry – it is a movie that presents a total story that doesn’t translate from any of its parts. It is uniquely Iraqi in that it reads like a metaphor.

Newsweek and several other mags loved the story of Hayder and his crew, particularly once Hayder took a tour of America and met them in person. But most reviewers, such as the Village Voice, simply told us that they wouldn’t consider a review until we had a theatrical run. Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to happen, because most of the digital theaters in NYC we approached wouldn’t run the film once the DVD had been released, a move we did to be ahead of the tide of “other” films from Iraq. Mistake? Sure. But at the time, other Iraq docs had come out and done terribly in theaters, making the lukewarm reception of ours turn cold. I didn’t see any other option than to go straight to DVD and hope we would get enough press to finance a future, better project with the iraqeye group.

LU: The film presents a complex, diverse, nuanced society that seems just as full of contradictions and divergent emotions and opinions as any Western country. It’s not clearly pro- or antiwar. How has that impacted the way it’s been received?

AR: The grey area traversed by the movie made it unique and refreshing for audiences but difficult to market. shied away from any sponsorship because of the pro-bush sentiments expressed early on in the film. It was easier for me to get a CNN interview than one on AirAmerica. Other outlets said it was too anti-war. Ultimately, America is in a theater of the absurd period of history (again) and marketing this movie started burning everyone out.

LU: What was the most surprising part of making this film?

AR: For me, it was more than a learning experience – it was an acid test and trial by fire and school of hard knocks BA rolled into one. During the making of the surprise for me was how hesistant the directors were to making a doc. They wanted to make these bizarre narratives that seemingly had nothing to do with anything happening in Iraq. I think nobody wanted to focus on what was happening around them.

But the single biggest surprise during post production was apathy on the part of distributors and industry types. Those guys have no heart whatsoever. They wouldn’t know therre was a war in Iraq if there didn’t exist a market of people wanting to buy media about it.

LU: What is Hayder doing now? How has his life changed since the film came out? Is he still working as the night cashier at the Palestine Hotel? Is he making any more movies?

AR: Hayder is hanging in there. He has travelled quite a bit with the film, to south korea, egypt, jordan. He came to the US and toured with the film at festivals and screenings for two months, and got really really homesick. Now he is back in Iraq and a good quarter of the way through a second documentary. Based on the press from Dreams some big shots are taking interest in this second film, and things are looking very good for him and his crew. But. We still have no money. Working on handouts. I managed to get Hayder a laptop to edit on, and an initial budget to shoot a sell video with. But he is still working the old night shift at the Palestine. After this project is over, in six months, he will be a full time filmmaker, I am sure of it.

LU: How old is Hayder? Is he married? Any kids?

AR: Hayder’s age has been the topic of debate. We figured it to be around 33. He has a wife and two kids, Karrar and Mousa.

LU: How old are you? Are you still living in your van in NYC?

AR: I am now 26. Yikes. I’m that old. I gave up the van life for a number of reasons, police harassment, unexpected death of my dog and the price of gas. More than anything I had come to learn as much as I would from that life at that time. Took the Buddha how many years in a cave? I spent two and half in a van with my dog and I decided I had retreated from the world enough. I gave my zafu cushion to a friend and haven’t meditated since. My van is rusting up at my mom’s farm with no plates on it, I’m thinking of burying it in the Spring. I’m taking the short path for a while.

LU: What are you working on now?

AR: I am in Mexico right now, telecommuting with a stray internet signal I get on the roof. I have been developing the deal for Hayder’s next film, which is looking pretty good, as well as developing a number of television docs, which are great because the distribution is wide and built in and there is less risk regarding money. We have several pitches that are looking very solid and have a lot of support. All are the right thing to do so I don’t mind the thought of working for the boob tube too much.

LU: Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about?

AR: I am totally obsessed with the Plame-gate Saga. Karma?

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