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Cambridge Fest showcases best of Iraqi film

(6th–16th July 2006, Cambridge Arts Picturehouse)

Iraqi Cinema has had a chequered history – from all-singing all-dancing melodramas of the 40s to lavish vanity projects funded by Saddam Hussein in the 80s to total extinction during the Gulf Wars.

Now amidst the tensions of the occupation the resuscitation of Iraqi Cinema has gradually begun, heralding a new phase in the slow redevelopment of a beleaguered nation, and the emergence of the First International Iraq Short Film Festival that took place in Baghdad in September 2005 is an encouraging sign of an emerging new wave of independent Iraqi film-makers.

Explains Catherine Day, Cambridge Film Festival Iraqi Cinema Programme Consultant, and member of a British team who visited Iraq recently aiding cultural reconstruction: “Any culture can express itself more powerfully through film than through any other means. So nothing shows better the dire state of Iraqi cultural expression than its depressed film industry which, once flourishing, has essentially been dead for over two decades, suppressed by a repressive regime, and ignored by the rest of the world.”

She continues: “ The Festival was held in spite of extreme difficulties – aside from an extinct Iraq film industry, there were security threats to the Festival and its organisers, an absence of public funding, and no real idea if people would be willing or able to make films to enter – in spite of these huge problems, 140 films were submitted and the event was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm by people who normally have little to be enthusiastic about”.

In a gesture of support to this new emerging Iraqi Cinema The Cambridge Film Festival has invited Iraq International Short Film Festival Director Nizar Al Rawi to present the best of his festival, as well as a selection of new Iraqi – most of which will receive their UK premieres - giving British audiences a unique chance to see, understand and support the resurrection of Iraqi Cinema.

Explains Nizar: “ Screening these films in Cambridge will be our first window to the world, to convey the ambitions of the Iraq film industry and the concerns of my people who yearn to live peaceful lives. In Baghdad we think that everyone has deserted us and all the roads for a better future have been closed, but the Cambridge Film Festival has given us a platform to reach a wider audience, for which we sincerely thank them, and everyone who has supported the new Iraqi cinema and its truthfulness and enabled us to begin to turn our backs on hatred and destruction.”

Brief History of Iraqi Cinema – From Russia With Love to Italian Blue Movies
Iraq once had a thriving movie industry, which first emerged in the 1940s built around a handful of private firms supported by film-makers from France, The Lebanon and Egypt. Together they produced hugely popular, and extremely profitable melodramatic romances sweetened by singing and dancing, which were screened in movie theatres first established by the British occupiers in the 1920s.However after the 1958 military coup toppled King Faisal the new government unleashed a broad and idealistic programme of social reform. The cinema industry was nationalised and was even further restricted after the 1968 coup which put Saddam Hussein into power, when state control intensified.

The cinema industry flourished in the 1970s – into what many believed was a ‘Golden Era’ as state-sanctioned histories won plaudits abroad. However these were films with blunt political messages which reflected the revolution, and idealised the new reforms, making heroes of farmers, workers and enemies of the merchant classes (eg: The River). At the height of this intense social and political campaign Saddam recruited Bond director Terence Young (Dr No, From Russia With Love, Thunderball) to bring to the screen his life story, The Long Days (1980), starring his cousin, Saddam Kamel (who bore a striking resemblance to the President). The Long Days was a crucial part of the heroic personal mythology Saddam constructed about his early life. Unfortunately for the actor he later fell foul of Saddam and was brutally murdered, even though he had become Saddam’s son-in-law having married his daughter Rina!

This hugely expensive vanity project was followed by Oliver Reed (and a crew of British technicians) lured by huge pay packets to star in one of the classics of the period, The Great Question (1983) – a three hour epic filmed at the height of the Iran/Iraq war - which documented the 1920 revolt against British rule. Nicholas Young, one of Reed’s co-stars recalled: “It was never entirely clear which Great Question the film title referred to. We asked our own of course - what on earth are we doing here?”

However, by the 90s the Iraqi cinema industry was in a state of collapse after the UN imposed broad sanctions on Iraq in August 1990 and the cinema went into a steep decline. New equipment, film stock and chemicals for laboratories were forbidden under new import laws designed to curb Saddam’s chemical weapons programme, so no films were produced, until 2005.

Since the overthrow of Saddam and the US occupation, Iraqi cinemas have re-opened and once again there are queues around the block. Unfortunately there is only one kind of movie on offer – blue, semi-pornographic dated Turkish and Italian sex films, which are the only films able to make money as women and children have been afraid to venture out.

However the international success of Oday Rahseed’s Under Exposure, which examines Baghdad in the immediate aftermath of the US, followed by the triumph of last year’s First Iraq International Short Film Festival is a healthy indicator that the new wave of Iraqi film-makers – many of them the product of Fine Arts at Baghdad University which has continued to offer film degree courses – are poised to take advantage of the new stability, heralding the resurrection of Iraqi Cinema.

Best of Baghdad: New Iraq Cinema Highlights:

* Dreams of Sparrows (dir. Haydar Daffar. Iraq, 2006. Arabic with English subtitles. 70 mins). For two years, a motley crew of cameramen, friends, and ‘associate producers’ travelled the Iraqi streets, documenting how dreams of liberation become nightmares of occupation with raw immediacy. Some of the footage is captured on cameras borrowed by director Haydar Daffar from foreign journalists staying at the Baghdad hotel in which he worked.

* Some of the Facts – Documentaries from the Iraq Short Film Festival. Which includes the two joint winners of the ‘Best Documentary Award’: Damned Gum (dir. Ammar Saad, 29 mins), a young journalist’s view of a city whose colours fade after his partner is killed; The Office of Security (dir. Hadi Mahood, 22 mins), Saddam’s authorities tortured people in the Office of Security. After the authorities are defeated, the office closes. But for its new inhabitants, the people the war made homeless, a different sort of torture continues, and Film About Cilema (dir. Uday Salah, 30 mins), the story of Iraqi cinema (which Iraqis mispronounce as ‘cilema’) and of Iraq’s first film festival told through the eyes of two young Iraqi film-makers.

* Creative Freedom – Fictions from the Iraq Short Film Festival
A mixed programme including: The Key (dir. Akeel Fikree Baroshi Hameed, 4 mins), winner of the ‘Best Animation Award’, a key’s first day in its new job; The War (dir. Mohammad Al-Derrajee, 4 mins), an experimental film condemning war; Contradiction (dir. Fikree Baroshi, 3 mins), winner of the ‘Special Prize’, a contradiction between the peaceful, nectar-eating bee and the vicious, bee-eating hornet; Just Playing (dir. Zahaqi Sanjawi, 8 mins), children play football in a minefield; Gaf (dir. Shokat Amin Korky, 23 mins), winner of the ‘Best Short Narrative Film Award’, a young boy learns fast in his first day doing a job he takes to save his family, and Between Bullets and The Tigris (dir. Dia Khalid, 4 mins), an attempt is made on an Iraqi dancer’s life. He is shot by Islamicists, and the bullet lodges in his thorax, later he is shown coming to terms with the pain.


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