Film Reviews

Reviews: Films on life and death at Jonestown, American anarchism, & more

| November / December 2006

Shot in Iraq

Against all odds, a new film college in Baghdad graduates its inaugural class

by Ali Jaafar, from Sight & Sound

A young Iraqi woman stares into the camera, her eyes betraying unimaginable experiences. A student-turned-taxi driver smokes his way through each road-blocked day. A respected artist salvages the covers of books looted from the burnt remnants of Iraq's fine-arts library. These images were captured by three of the four inaugural graduates of Baghdad's Independent Film and Television College: Hiba Bassem, Kifaya Saleh, and Mounaf Shaker. The college was set up in 2004 by Maysoon Pachachi and Kasim Abid, a pair of Iraqi filmmakers back in the war-torn country after 30 years of exile to give young Iraqis free access to courses on lighting, editing, and documentary filmmaking. It produced its first three films in December 2005. Since then, its alumni have been touring their work overseas.

Bassem's Baghdad Days, which won the silver award at Al-Jazeera's international TV festival in March, details how she returned from northern Iraq to Baghdad to finish her studies at the city's Academy of Fine Arts only to find herself and her family caught up in the insurgency. Saleh's Hiwar depicts the valiant attempts of a group of Iraqi artists and writers to establish a cultural center in Baghdad. Shaker's Omar Is My Friend is a poignant portrayal of a Baghdad University student compelled to drive the Iraqi capital's dangerous streets in a clapped-out Volkswagen Passat in order to provide for his wife and four daughters.

'After 13 years of sanctions, two wars, and 35 years of no filmmaking outside of governmental control, we got back to find a film industry that was less than zero,' says Pachachi of the Herculean task that faced her and Abid in setting up their college. 'There were no labs, no film stock, and no digital equipment.' As if concerns over the lack of equipment and funding weren't enough (the college is entirely dependent on donations), the duo have also had to contend with daily violence in Baghdad. Relatives of two students have been kidnapped, one student's cousin was badly injured by a bomb, another student lost an uncle in an explosion, and a shop owner in the school building was kidnapped. 'It is very difficult,' says Abid. 'In Baghdad anything can happen. One student left the country after his uncle and wife were killed.' What's more, the rise in Islamic militias, both Sunni and Shia, patrolling the city streets and their disdainful attitude toward cinema as a heretic pastime has meant the college cannot advertise its location for fear of reprisals. Not that any of this has stopped young Iraqis filing through the doors. 'Even I don't know how, but every day they keep coming and concentrating,' says Abid. 'Sometimes I ask what a film can do in this situation when there's no meaning to life, but this is a period which needs to be recorded for history.'

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