Iraq and a Hard Place

By Tom Charity

brian-haw.jpgBrian Haw [1]

Salam Pax hadn’t been to a film festival before he came to Vancouver last Autumn. Not as a filmmaker anyway. In fact, he tells me, he hasn’t been to the cinema for quite some time. “The last film shown in a Baghdad cinema was around 1985. I think it was called Love in Baghdad – you’d never know there was a war on at the time. But the government didn’t encourage filmmaking, and since then the only thing shown in our huge old theatres is soft-core porn. Families don’t go to the cinema anymore.”

People watch movies at home on pirated DVDs, he says, “mostly Schwarzenegger and Van Damme stuff.” There’s worse. The building which housed the Iraqi film archives was burnt to the ground. The country’s cinematic heritage may have been decimated. Of course, this is not front-page news. There are more pressing concerns in Iraq right now. But it’s the sort of detail which continues to draw people to Salam Pax’s web dispatches - he’s best known as ‘the Baghdad Blogger’ – to the book which sprang from it and now to the video diaries he shoots for the BBC, which have been stitched together for the VIFF screening. In a news culture dominated by headlines and deadlines, Pax has found space to fill in some of the blanks, allowing us access to an insider’s view of life before and after Operation Iraqi Freedom (Peter Maas called him the ‘Anne Frank of the war and its Elvis’).

Salam (Pax is a nom-de-blog) is the first to say he’s not a filmmaker. “I apologize to all the real filmmakers out there”, although I tell him the only definition of a filmmaker which counts is of someone who makes films. Given that Salam makes his in a war-zone, no-one is likely to question his credentials on that score. An architect who trained in Vienna, Salam has spent the last year working as a translator for journalists from The New York Times and for The Guardian. Frankly, he’s disappointed in the foreign correspondents. “Their interest is so fickle,” he says. “The news is a 24-hour thing, nobody is interested in what’s happening to people a month later; nobody realises that an explosion is more than a body count, it’s also a neighbourhood wrecked; a shopkeeper ruined; or even that life still goes on.”

He started his weblog in the long months leading up to the war. “At first, it was a way to get better informed, a list of sites, really. Then it started to become a conversation with other bloggers; and finally it went crazy, and people started reading it like a newspaper.” In Britain, The Guardian started syndicating his columns and then, after the invasion, they were put into book form and the BBC invited him to make video dispatches for Newsnight. Ironically, the greater the attention, the more unhappy Salam became with the blog. “It stopped being fun and I started censoring myself,” he says. “So I have moved it somewhere else, and it’s back to what it used to be” (he won’t give me the URL, but search for ‘Shut Up You Fat Whiner’, “which is what I always used to get in my in-tray”).

Modest, irreverent and candid, Salam admits that his Pax persona is not quite the real him. “There was a point when I felt a bit jealous, to tell you the truth. Salam Pax is much ballsier than me. He just says it, while I would always try to be nice. When I go back to Iraq, I generally pack him up in a bag under my bed. I mean, my mum wouldn’t like me like that. But it’s been interesting finding that Salam inside me. And doing the films too: Salam Pax is much braver and more inquisitive than I would be.

“To a lot of people in the Middle East, Salam Pax would be offensive,” he says, explaining his need for an alias. “It took a lot of persuasion before I agreed to put my face on camera, and I begged them not to sell the programmes to any Arabic TV stations or even to put it on BBC World. It’s not that I’m trying to show bad things. The very opposite: I try to show how we live our life. There is another Iraq, beyond the bombings. But they wouldn’t like the mirror I hold up.”

There was an elation in his first reports after the war, almost a euphoria, which has equally clearly evaporated. “The situation now is really very bad and getting worse,” he says. “It’s at a point beyond anyone’s nightmares.” He tells me about a place called Looters’ Market. It’s a place some people go to buy DVDs and videos. It used to be that they sold porn there. Then it was home movies of attacks on Americans (“these insurgents have their own filmmakers,” he notes drily). Now, what they’re selling and blasting out into the street are DVDs of beheadings.

“You get out the taxi and you hear these strange noises. You turn around. It takes a very long time. These - I won’t even call them people - they use small knives and it takes them forever. People are selling these DVDs for a quarter of a dollar. I can’t explain it. But these are the films that are selling in Baghdad.”


Endnote

[1] Brian Haw has been peacefully opposing the economic sanctions on Iraq, the invasion and now the occupation, continuously, 24/7, from his site in London’s Parliament Square, since 1 June 2001. His vigil is believed to be the longest individual protest in British history. Now, he faces extraordinary legislation by the government, targeted at his activities but designed to curtail all ongoing protest in and around Parliament and Whitehall. To find out more, and support the campaign to defend Brian Haw and the centuries-old right to protest, please visit www.parliament-square.org.uk.


Tom Charity formerly edited the film pages of Time Out London and is now a freelance writer based in Vancouver. He has published books on John Cassavetes and The Right Stuff.