Iraq Reels and Realities

By Maysoon Pachachi


Proposing a new citizen’s film initiative for Baghdad and beyond

During the Gulf War of 1991, like every Iraqi I knew in London, I sat transfixed in front of the television, morning, noon and night. Many of us hadn’t been back ‘home’ for years and the only images we had of our country were the ones we held in our memories. Before 1990, Iraq wasn’t in the news here in Europe and we saw little to help us update our sense of what the country had become.

But suddenly Iraq was there on our screens for hours every night, and yet we were none the wiser; there were only eerily green skyline shots of the bombing, with black and white computer images of ‘smart’ bombs finding their targets, all scored to the rumble and blast of heavy artillery fire. In hundreds of hours of media coverage, I never saw one ordinary Iraqi person. It was as if there were no human beings on the receiving end of all this firepower. For those of us with families and friends in Iraq, this erasure or denial was a traumatic, even surreal experience, and we had the sickening feeling that it had made the war more ‘acceptable’ to the general public.

I decided to make a documentary about Iraqi women living in exile here in the UK. Through their stories and reflections, I hoped to explore the lived experience of Iraqis and something of the social and political realities of the country and of its modern history. At first, people were wary. Was I a spy? Would their families in Iraq suffer if they appeared in the film? If they were too critical of the war, would their status as asylum seekers be affected? In the end, they decided to trust me, and the floodgates opened. It was as if people were telling their stories for the first time – no one had asked them, no one had wanted to know, it seemed. However painful, they now leapt at the chance of making their voices heard by a British public to whom they’d been invisible.

Iraq hasn’t dropped out of the news yet, not like Afghanistan. American troops are still having to battle it out on the ground; the UN and Red Cross headquarters have been attacked, so we now actually get to see shots of the streets and to hear vox pop interviews in Baghdad and elsewhere. But still we get little sense of daily life. We don’t see what’s happening in people’s houses, in schools, shops, on street corners. We have no idea how people are coping with the present traumas of war, unemployment and military occupation nor with the burdens of the not-yet-past past, whether these are the effects of 13 years of sanctions or the endless brutalities of the former regime.

Those who can really tell this story, of course, are the people of Iraq themselves. This is why Kasim Abid, a fellow Iraqi filmmaker living in London and I have conceived a project for a film and television training institute in Baghdad.

We were inspired by our experience in Palestine, where we have both taught short film courses off and on for the past decade. Many of our former students now make films on DV equipment, of varying sensibilities and technical quality, but all conveying a lived sense of the contemporary Palestinian reality, far from the stereotypes of stone-throwers and suicide bombers. There is a desperate need for something similar in Iraq.

During the Saddam years, people managed to paint or write, even if this meant hiding work in the cellar or circulating it clandestinely, but making films was out of the question. And now there seems to be a hunger for it. As I write this, Kasim is in Baghdad. He has been overwhelmed with the response to our project, both from practitioners of other art forms and young people, all anxious to start filming.

We’ll offer a series of one and two-month courses, free of charge, for 20 students at a time; ten from Baghdad and ten from outside the city, with a minimum of 25% being women. We’ll teach camera, sound, lighting, editing, documentary and short fiction film-making and we’ll provide production facilities, so that students can continue making films after their courses are finished. At the end of the third year, we’ll hold a festival of the institute’s work.

In the first year, a one-week festival of films made by exile Iraqi filmmakers will provide an opportunity for an exchange of views and stories between those who left the country and those who stayed. At this point in Iraq’s history, this is a critically important dialogue. Having both been away for many years, Kasim and I don’t want to impose some imported off-the shelf idea with little relevance to people’s desires and needs, as seems to be happening with projects put forward by western governments to advance the situation of women, revamp the education and health system, revive the economy etc. We feel we have to start somewhere, however, and be prepared constantly to re-think our plans in response to what we learn.

Maysoon Pachachi is an Iraqi film-maker living in London. Her most recent film was Bitter Water, about Palestinian refugee camp communities. She is also a founder member of Act Together: Women’s Action for Iraq.