Shuttered views

Feature With a filmmaking training centre in Baghdad and a documentary about Iraqi citizens, Kasim Abid hopes to encourage young Iraqis to tell their story.

Iraqi Director Kasim Abid (centre), during trhe making of his documentary, "Life After the Fall" (Hayat Ma Baad al Suqoot). Courtesy
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About 20 minutes into Kasim Abid's documentary, Life After the Fall (Hayat Ma Baad al Suqoot), the viewer begins to notice something strange. Abid returned to Baghdad in 2003 after a 35-year absence, most of which was spent in London where he forged a life as a successful career, making films such as Amid the Alien Corn, Naji al Ali: An Artist with Vision and Surda Check Point, a film that records the activities at an Israeli checkpoint. His return to Baghdad was part of a plan to establish a centre there aimed at giving young Iraqis hands-on training with the tools of filmmaking.

"Most of them have graduated from the Academy of Arts," he explained while relaxing in the Industry Lounge at the Madinat Jumeirah during last week's Dubai International Film Festival. "They can talk very knowledgeably about Fellini, Passolini and Truffaut but they have no idea how to use a camera or how to set up lighting." The school was Abid's original objective, but before starting work on it, he found himself overwhelmed by the experience of encountering three generations of a family he had not seen for more than three decades. His mother, brothers, nieces and nephews had all weathered Iraq's chaotic and devastating modern history of war, dictatorship and sanctions, emerging with lives, businesses, aspirations and opinions that were both unique to themselves but also common to many Iraqis.

He knew almost immediately that he had to pick up his camera and film their stories. And for four years he did. And it is through the lens of his camera that the viewer comes to the strange if originally unspectacular realisation that after years of TV images, Hollywood films and media bombardment, here is a picture of Iraq, specifically Baghdad, through the eyes of Iraqis. Here are the images of the mundane: a residential street devoid of tanks and soldiers; a young woman lamenting the life forced upon her by the chaos of her homeland and then slightly smirking at the camera with good-natured forbearance as her father scorns her alleged mistreatment of a car that is "the envy of everyone"; a stunned gathering before a TV set displaying the carnage in a town where two employees of the family business had been sent for the day; the mourning of Abid's brother who is killed in sectarian violence. It is the gradual unravelling of the family beneath the onslaught of unspeakable violence.

These are the images not deemed newsworthy by the international media. These are the images of Iraq that we never see, the stories that we never hear. These are Iraqi images. Not anyone else's. Images of Iraq have been co-opted - whether consciously or inexorably - by the invading power. The majority of early media coverage came from the perspective of the embed and by the time the truth about the invasion began to emerge, the movement of those on the ground carrying cameras was so restricted for safety reasons that the images of Iraq transmitted to the world became increasingly myopic. Our field of vision narrowed to encompass firefights, suicide bombers, soldiers in camouflage garb, pools of blood and little else.

Hollywood, of course, told the American story of the war even if it did not follow the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld script. Nevertheless, no matter how humane or angry the approach, the focus remained on the invaders. Iraqi characters were, for the most part, murderers or the murdered. They were never real people with real lives. "I was really struck by this issue during the first Iraqi war when I was sitting in London watching news 24 hours a day and there were thousands of hours of footage of video game-like imagery, of smart bombs supposedly hitting their targets, of Baghdad all lit up in green," remembered Maysoon Pachuchi, whose film Open Shutters Iraq also screened at DIFF. Pachuchi, a partner with Abid in the Independent Film & Television College in Baghdad, also edited Life After the Fall. "But never was there a picture of an ordinary Iraqi, an ordinary Iraqi neighbourhood. And that, I was afraid, made it easier to accept what was going on."

Her reaction was to make a film about the lives of women in Iraq, Iraq Women: Voices from Exile. The general reaction was one of wonder, she said. No one knew anything about Iraq. Saddam Hussein seemed to be the sum total of the world's knowledge of the country. "With the current invasion you saw many more images on the ground, but what did you see? You saw the aftermath of an explosion, fire, blood on the street, people beating their chests in grief. Who are these people? What is the society into which all of this has fallen? What is the neighbourhood? Who is the man who died? We didn't know any of that... It renders people passive and unquestioning."

Open Shutters Iraq documents a project initiated by the British photojournalist Eugenie Dolberg, who secured UN funding to train women from five Iraqi cities in the use of still cameras. The training took place in Damascus where everyone lived together in a house for a month. The women spent most of their day on the streets shooting pictures which were then critiqued on a technical level. In addition to shooting their own pictures, the women were asked to examine their lives, identify critical turning points and write about them, characterising the emotions they experienced. They drew maps of their lives and illustrated them with family photos. Then, each stood before the group and talked about their experiences.

"As in Kasim's film, it is incredible to hear of the things that people have experienced in their lives," Pachuchi continued. "People don't know the lives people were living before the invasion and how they changed afterwards. Each story is like a thread and in the end the threads are woven into a piece of cloth which is like a collective experience of the past 35 years of Iraq." The stories are heartbreaking and their telling devastating to watch. Family members are killed. Miscarriages are recounted. One woman, a nurse, is abducted, hit on the head with the butt of a gun, and held until she pays $20,000 (Dh73,460). When the kidnappers were arrested, they paid her $20,000 not to bring charges. The police begged her to. "What could I do?" she asked her fellow budding photographers. "I had to pay my bills."

But humour remains, as well. When the group comments on the how slim one of the women is in a photograph taken years ago, she says with a faint smile: "Well, you know, it was the American invasion." At the end of the month, the women returned to Iraq to take pictures of their lives, concentrating on one subject of their choosing. Then the woman returned to Damascus where they wrote essays and captions to accompany their photography. Eventually, there will be exhibitions of the photography and a book is planned, as well.

Because of the self-discovery process documented in Open Shutters Iraq, taking possession of the images that represent oneself becomes a multilayered idea. The concept of life's images goes from the generic-turned-personal - the family photo album - to the specific memory of a newly examined turning point that is called to mind by a photo that means nothing to someone else. And from there, the women learn to create their own images, those not framed by the unseen eye behind the family camera but conceptualised wholly by themselves, fuelled by the memories and desires of their own lives.

"You get a very strong sense in this film that even during a war, people continue to need to eat, they need to raise their children, they have to carry on their lives... and much of that falls to the women because the men have gone off to war. You meet people who were gone for 10 to 12 years to war," she continued. According to Pachuchi, the Iraqi artist is confronted with a particularly difficult environment in which to work. The horror of the war and violence is, as she puts it, "mind-boggling, difficult to grasp as a human being". But the creation of art is "almost an affirmation of self and an act of resistance, in a way".

Acts of resistance, of course, sometimes come with a price, and this is what Abid weighs as he fields offers from various broadcasters who have approached him about acquiring Life After the Fall. He has resisted taking on a sales agent who would sell the film for him, preferring instead to retain personal control of exactly where the film is shown. He is afraid that it could end up broadcast on a satellite channel available in Iraq, which could be dangerous for his family members who opened up so completely to his camera.

"I've had problems like that before," he explained. "A sales agent makes promises but then they sell it to someone who puts it on satellite and it is shown in Iraq." As for his family members who did not see the film until it was screened in Dubai, Abid says: "It was so immediate. I would see something, get my camera and start filming them. They were so direct and open. I don't think they really knew what was going on until they saw the film for the first time here in Dubai."

Whether it bothered them or not was difficult to say. During a panel discussion on documentary films, Abid told the audience that his family members were doing what anyone in Dubai for a short time would do. They were shopping. Both Abid and Pachuchi are equally passionate about their films and their work with the filmmaking centre in Baghdad. The centre is free of charge to students and operates on grants and donations from various sources around the world. It currently teaches directing and technical classes and the 11 films produced by students to date have been documentaries. "Given the situation in Iraq, it is very difficult to do anything else," explained Abid.

Free of charge or not, the centre is rigorous and has high expectations of those it enrols. Students are required to begin making films almost immediately upon enrolment. If they do not, Abid said they are shown the door. "We don't have a lot of money and it is all donated. We can't carry people who are not doing the work." Said Pachuchi: "It's one thing for me to go back and make a film or for Kasim to go back and make a film but we didn't live through sanctions or through the war. The kids there did. They've known virtually nothing else. They were in a position to tell stories and we wanted to give them the means to put their stories on the screen."

The 11 documentaries have received exposure at international festivals and been amply awarded. That alone is a testament to the nascent success of a very small movement to allow Iraqis to lay claim to the images of their own reality, a reality from which most of the world appears to prefer to avert its eyes. "My mission," concluded Abid, "is to give a voice to the voiceless." The first steps toward that goal have been taken. The next step is to make sure people listen.