'Take Me to the Cinema' journeys into old Baghdad movie hall to resist war and uncertainty

Albaqer Jafeer's documentary draws a parallel between his anxieties as a young filmmaker and the experiences of a novelist in 1980s Iraq

In 'Take Me to the Cinema', Iraqi author Nassif Falak finally realises his lifelong dream of appearing on the big screen. Photo: Akram Saadoon
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Granada Cinema was once one of the grandest in Baghdad. The now-dilapidated relic looms between Tahrir and Tayaran squares, in an area that has become a labyrinthine open-air market, especially known for selling old military clothing.

The movie theatre itself has transformed into an ad hoc warehouse for the market. Dusty reels and posters of films from the 1970s are stacked in a forgotten corner of the building. The structure, with its battered interior and peeling gold-green facade, is a tragic microcosm of Iraq’s war-torn reality and an example of cultural potential maimed by years of violent unrest.

For Iraqi novelist Nassif Falak, however, the cinema is a memorial site with deeper personal significance. It represents the foundations of his love for film and the burial ground of his acting ambitions.

“It was my only dream,” Falak says in the documentary Take Me to the Cinema, which is screening at the Amman International Film Festival, taking place until Wednesday. “To become an actor like Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando. To escape from all the ugliness. This dream is fading. During the war, it was broken, completely broken. Until now, it singes in my chest and soul.”

The war Falak is referring to is the Iran-Iraq War, an eight-year-long conflict that began in 1980 and resulted in about 500,000 deaths on both sides. The writer, who is now 65, managed to abscond from mandatory military service in his youth and escape the war. He also tried to flee Iraq several times by forging passports, but ultimately remained in Baghdad.

“To have a passport was something beyond the impossible,” he says in the documentary. “Crossing the border was a notion only for the insane, and I was one of the insane. I left the rifle, the bullet, the uniform, the army, the country and Saddam [Hussein], so I could become me.”

What fuelled Falak’s desire to escape Iraq was that the movie theatres he had found refuge in, watching the films of McQueen and Lee Van Cleef, also closed during the war. Those like Granada, which remained open until the early 1990s, also stopped screening regular titles and began showing light pornography instead.

Falak and Granada are at the centre of Take Me to the Cinema, but they are not the documentary’s focal point. Rather, the terror of cyclical time and mirrored fates is the film’s deeper concern, as well as the ambition “to become oneself” despite pervading violence and turmoil.

Director Albaqer Jafeer saw in Falak’s story something that resembles his own, and that parallelism is the basis of the documentary. Jafeer, 28, evokes this by presenting himself as one of the documentary’s subjects as well as its narrator. He references Falak’s novel Kheder Qad and the Olive Green Epoch ­— which is based on the author’s experiences in 1980s Iraq — to reflect upon his own anxieties as an Iraqi filmmaker. Passages of the novel are recited by Jafeer and Falak in tandem, their voices echoing with aural symbolism.

“[The novel’s] pages became like doors, each door opening another,” Jafeer says in the documentary. “I see time repeating itself in a terrifying way.”

As a way of finding hope and breaking out of an uncanny echo, Jafeer and Falak embark on a mission to find a copy of Papillon, the 1973 prison drama that stars McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.

The film was one that Falak watched frequently at Granada. It is steeped in his unconscious, the novelist points out, to the point where he has unwittingly adopted certain postures from McQueen’s character, Henri Charriere, a safecracker known as Papillion ("butterfly" in French) who yearns to escape the French Guiana prison.

The precision of allusions in Take Me to the Cinema elevates it into a 75-minute work of poetry. It takes frequent leaps into fiction, especially in its final stretch, by enacting parts of Kheder Qad.

It is Falak himself who plays the solitary role. Dressed in military garb from the 1980s, which was purchased from the open-air market around Granada Cinema, Falak marches out of Baghdad, gradually stripping away the uniform until he reaches the snow-capped Erbil mountains, coming across a butterfly that alludes to Charriere’s great escape.

The scene is, at once, an echo of Falak’s attempts at leaving Iraq when he was young and a realisation of his lifelong dream of becoming an actor.

However, the film’s editor, Akram Saadoon, says the novelist has yet to see Take Me to the Cinema for himself, and is refusing to do so until he can see it in one of Baghdad’s old movie halls, ideally Granada — as far-fetched as that dream may be.

The film has already been screened at several festivals in the region, including at the Red Sea International Film Festival, but has yet to show in Iraq.

“We are working on trying to find an old cinema in Iraq with seats, and where we can put a projector and screen,” Saadoon tells The National. “But it isn’t easy and needs funding.

“This film took us years of hard work. Albaqer saw that Nassif’s novel was reminiscent of what was happening in Iraq today. He wanted to contrast the two times to reflect upon the future.”

The initial cut, Saadoon says, was “much harsher”.

“I tried to soften it, space it out. I am well familiar with the Iraqness of Nassif. I know how much fear, terror he encountered. I wanted there to be room for all that to resonate, for there to be scenes where he’d speak without speaking.”

Updated: July 24, 2022, 12:01 PM