A Way of Not Losing Heart: Independent Image-making in Occupied Iraq

By Maysoon Pachachi

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I last wrote an article for Vertigo in December 2003. That was about a free-of-charge, donation- and grant-funded film-training centre I was setting up in Baghdad with my friend Kasim Abid, a London-based filmmaker of Iraqi origin, like myself.

We had big plans. In the event, the progressively deteriorating security situation in Baghdad and the piecemeal nature of our funding meant that Kasim and I had to run everything ourselves - improvising, remaining flexible and low key - under the radar of the religious militias and criminal gangs.

We rented a couple of rooms in a small office block in a calm, mixed neighbourhood, fixed the plumbing, got a generator for the electricity and started our first course in camera sound and lighting in March 2004. By the time we came to do our documentary production course in September, we could no longer advertise for students publicly. It was too dangerous: it would call attention to the school. We relied on word of mouth and notices in arts centres and colleges to find our students.

In the end, the course lasted not the four months we’d planned, but a year. Students practiced with cameras and microphones on the roof of the building among the broken tiles and satellite dishes. They ran around trying to find subjects for their films - researching, interviewing, writing proposals and treatments. Finally, they were ready to shoot, but then they found the area they wanted to film in was too dangerous, with the people who were going to be in the film, between one day and the next, having to leave the country without warning. And time and again, they had to begin their research afresh. In the end, they chose subjects closer to home, among people they knew, in areas they felt safe. They worked with commitment and determination and, when they were ready, we brought the editors and directors to Amman; we slept in borrowed flats, set up our equipment in a friend’s empty office and finished four films.

Just as our new documentary course was beginning in spring 2006, historic Shia shrines in the city of Samarra were blown up and this was a touch paper for an exponential increase of sectarian violence that continued for the next 18 months. Students had to negotiate checkpoints and closed military areas to get into the school, one had relatives kidnapped and killed and left the country, and we had to close down for two weeks when two people were kidnapped from our building. The students doggedly went about their work, constantly being forced to change the story of their films. Kasim was the one dealing with all this – I hadn’t been in Baghdad.

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Back in London for the summer, he seemed shaken. The students contacted us throughout the summer to discuss their films. In August we heard that Kasim’s brother had been kidnapped from his car repair shop, his body found a week later thrown on the street and riddled with bullets – probably because he refused to pay protection money to one of the ‘religious’ militia gangs. In November, an explosion in our hitherto quiet neighbourhood shattered every pane of glass in our building. Finally we admitted that we had to try to re-locate temporarily in a neighbouring country. In May 2007, students came to Damascus and over the period of a month edited their films. To date, our students have produced 11 short documentary films – some have been shown at festivals and other venues, most recently at the British Museum, and some have won prizes.

Baghdad is calmer now and we are re-opening the school and starting a new documentary course. Perhaps it will slowly become more possible to invite other filmmakers to teach, to be more experimental, to move into fiction filmmaking as well. For the moment, though, we are concentrating on documentary. It is not a form that has deep roots in the Arab world and so, for our students, the idea of going out into the world and using their camera as a tool of discovery, to deal with what they think they know and find that they don’t, to be honest about the contradictions they find and to try to bring those truths to the screen – is new, and we feel it’s a way to develop a sense of critical thought. We are also keen that this period of Iraqi life is documented by those who are living it, and, simple as they are, our students’ films give a picture of Iraqi daily reality that is mostly absent from the world’s mainstream media.

Once they’ve gone through the whole process – from researching the subject to final edit - the students often start bubbling with ideas for ‘the next one’. Often, however, they’ve been defeated by the disabling violence and paralysing grief with which they’ve had to live. But some have managed to carry on thinking about the films they want to make. It is a way of not losing heart.


Independent Film and Television College (Baghdad): visit www.iftvc.org

Kasim and Maysoon have produced new documentary feature films of their own in 2008: Life after the Fall by Kasim Abid (Jan 2008); Open Shutters Iraq by Maysoon Pachachi (Dec 2008).

Maysoon Pachachi is a filmmaker, teacher and cultural activist.