Image credit: IIFC/Facebook. All rights reserved.
Turn the clock back thirty years and imagine Iraq’s bursting theatres and teahouses, its shop-fronts misted in argeela smoke and the tunes of Baghdadi maqam colouring its streets. This energetic cityscape is near impossible to find today in downtown Baghdad, a shadow of its former self.
The devastation Iraq has suffered is not simply infrastructural or political. Iraqi culture, a site where national politics has long been contested and re-imagined, remains at risk of decaying.
This was particularly so during America's 2003 occupation, when the production of literature, art, and film nearly disappeared altogether. The so-called liberators bulldozed public and government spaces where cultural production was once encouraged—even if confined to a pan-Arab framework by the former Ba'athist government. Intellectual life since America's promotion of democracy remains largely unchanged.
While the invasion proved to be anything but a panacea to years of dictatorship, it did encourage a need for cultural preservation by Iraqis wanting to activate awareness of the past through creative forms.
A cluster of filmmakers who took up this challenge now manage the Iraqi Independent Film Centre (IIFC). Operating since 2003, the centre was formally established in 2009 and is the first organisation of its kind in Iraq.
Its members describe it as an unrestricted space for critical thinking and filmmaking, with a focus on education, film production, and the promotion of Iraqi culture as its central pillars.
IIFC founder-director Mohamed Al-Daradji described the absence of a film industry in Iraq as the driving incentive. "We don't have an industry but we are making one," he said.
"Since 2009 we have held more than seven long-spanning workshops, created 15 short movies and three feature films, many of which have received awards at the most reputable international film festivals."
IIFC filmmaker Mohannad Hayal added that the medium of film was chosen explicitly for its potential for generating creative output as well as its healing qualities.
By bringing to life alternative realities on the big screen, Iraqi filmmakers bridge the gap between filmmaking and living in a country traumatised by seventy-five years of war.
This is most apparent in Al-Daradji's award winning film Son of Babylon, the story of twelve year-old Ahmed's mission to locate his father after hearing of his release on the radio.
While filming Son of Babylon in Al-Nasiriyya, Al-Daradji was approached by an old man curious to learn what was happening in his hometown. After hearing from the crew that they were shooting an Iraqi movie, he enthusiastically asked about where and when it would be screened.
From this encounter Iraq's first ever 'mobile cinema' was born, touring remote villages, towns and refugee camps and screening IIFC movie productions. The centre spends four days at each location, hosting screenings and filmmaking workshops for children.
"There is often a healing aspect to our film projects, which is why we cast ordinary children as opposed to child actors," Al-Daradji said. "I will never forget the young orphan boy who we cast for one of the short films in 2013. He asked to perform a song he had written for his mother in the hopes she would hear it and rescue him from the orphanage."
Before ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom,’ Iraq had no cinema it could call its own. Film is generally remembered as a political tool that the former regime appropriated to indoctrinate an entire generation.
One particular incident springs to mind says Mohannad, "just a day before the screening of a movie dramatising the life of Saddam Hussein, we discovered that none other than the man himself had halted its release."
Hussein purportedly took issue with a scene in which the man playing him (his real cousin) utters the word 'ouch' in reaction to having a bullet surgically removed from his foot. He demanded that the scene be removed before the film could illuminate the silver screen.
Mohannad's tale exemplifies the power of film; to inculcate citizens' beliefs in the ideas preached by the ruling elite. At the same time, it exposes the futility of attempts to create an everlasting image of heroism—that can only pull the wool over citizen’s eyes for a limited time.
The IFFC sets itself apart by empowering people to communicate their personal stories, disturbing the formerly accepted elite narrative of war and power.
The centre’s efforts echo the vibrancy of Baghdad‘s cinematic history, which from as early as the1950s through to the late 1980s welcomed Arabic, European, American and Bollywood film productions. This phase in Iraq’s history is commonly referred to (and will forever be remembered) as the ‘Golden Age’.
The fact that Iraqis are actively engaged in making a new national film industry highlights a critical historical juncture. Mohannad hopes that future generations will expand the enterprise as far as their dreams take them:
"If the new generation is to avoid past mistakes, they need to understand what has and is still happening inside their country. In this way, youth acquire self-realisation, which, while not easy to achieve, helps to heal the war wounds of our recent past".
Iraqis mourn the death of culture in light of the Islamic State’s destruction of Iraq's archaeological treasures, but behind the scenes of nationwide misery a rebirth is happening and turning the page to a new era of hope.
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