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Lights . . . Camera . . . Hit the Dirt! 

In Baghdad, a perilous rebirth of feature filmmaking

Thursday, Jan 15 2004
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Photo by Usama Rasheed

BAGHDAD — They are filming on the banks of the Tigris River, among the reeds where civilization began, when they see the American soldiers watching them. Helicopters appear overhead, summoned by the row of tanks on Jamahiriya Bridge. Across the river, behind yards of concrete and razor wire, is the “green zone,” headquarters of the American occupation. Most of the attacks on the green zone by anti-American insurgents have come from the riverbed, perhaps from where they are standing right now.

Oday Rasheed, the 30-year-old director, looks up at cinematographer Ziad Turky. Shooting from a crane high above the muddy water, Turky is an easy target. They all know about Mazen Dana, the Palestinian cameraman for Reuters machine-gunned to death by an American soldier who thought the camera on his shoulder was a rocket launcher. Turky, looking through his lens, sees the glint of sunlight on glass and pictures his head in the cross hairs.

So far, the shoot is going exactly as planned: Lacking money for actors, let alone expensive movie sets and equipment, Rasheed and his crew are using the occupation forces as unwitting extras — playing chicken with the American army to get some free footage of Black Hawks and Abrams and Bradleys. “When we started shooting, we said, ‘We will get some visitors,’” explains Rasheed with conspiratorial glee. “And now we will use these visitors in our film.”

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Eight months after the fall of Saddam Hussein and just two weeks before his capture, there is still no reliable telephone service in Baghdad. Electricity blinks out for days at a time, making sewers back up and flood the streets when the pumps stop running. Rasheed and his friends, a lost generation of young artists, writers and directors, are making Iraq’s first feature film since 1994. Thanks to Saddam and U.N. sanctions, they’ve been isolated from the outside world for most of their lives. Now that he’s gone, they are building a cultural revolution — and a fragile new film industry — quite literally out of the rubble.

“Baghdad, for many years, was the center of culture in the Arab world,” says Rasheed, who has the heavy-lidded eyes, both soulful and sardonic, of a young Luis Buñuel. “And I’m talking about hundreds of years. So I think that now we need to rebuild our minds, not just the buildings.”

They have no money, no cameras of their own and no lights. They are shooting on film stock that was was discontinued about 20 years ago, bought from Baghdad’s postwar looters with money the filmmakers raised by selling practically everything they own. And Rasheed, with outrageous bravado, speaks of going to Cannes and winning the Palme d’Or.

Intercutting three different time frames à la Pulp Fiction, Rasheed — who loves Tarantino — is crafting a complex, multilayered movie that follows six characters who wander the war-torn city in search of signs of rebirth. There is Hassan, a young director making a documentary about Baghdad, and running out of film. Shirin, a prostitute, is persecuted by Islamic extremists after the war. And Moataz, a musician dying of cancer, is in love with his own sister. Meanwhile, a schizophrenic, Nasir, takes in a mortally wounded young soldier from the south of Iraq and, in one of the movie’s most poetic scenes, floats his corpse down the Tigris toward home.

The soldier is played by Basim Hamed, a willowy, 31-year-old sculptor who shaved his shoulder-length hair and grew a mustache for the part. “You see this man, Basim Hamed?” says Rasheed affectionately as Hamed shows up for the day’s shoot. “Let me tell you something. This man, he ran away from the army for years. And now he’s a soldier!” They laugh and slap hands.

Rasheed is sitting in the dark, dusty office of the Babel Film Co. Only two places in Iraq have film equipment: Babel, and the government film ministry that effectively controlled it. For the first time, Rasheed is free to use Babel’s decades-old cameras and cranes without government permission or censorship. “There is no government — I am the government!” laughs Rasheed, putting one hand on his chest and waving the other grandiosely to take in the ruined little office with dirty fiberglass insulation spilling out of its plywood walls.

Under Saddam Hussein, there was no such thing as independent filmmaking. Everybody worked for the state. In the stifling cultural isolation of those years, a kind of Baathist realism arose, a triumphalist aesthetic that mythologized Saddam and the historic Arab heroes he tried to emulate. The last movie made in Iraq, for example, was King Ghazi, about a Hashemite monarch with whom Saddam was obsessed.

But Rasheed is a member of Al-Najeen (“the survivors”), a group of artists and writers that began meeting secretly, 12 years ago, in Baghdad’s cafés and galleries. Painters, poets, sculptors and directors, they all shared one conviction: They refused to make art that glorified Saddam’s regime.

They paid dearly. Basim Al-Hajar, a theater director, was expelled from the fine-arts college: Following Saddam’s brutal 1991 massacre of rebellious Kurds and Shiites, he had been rash enough to direct Albert Camus’ play Caligula, in which the Roman emperor courts assassination by indiscriminately killing his subjects. Basim Hamed left the same college of his own accord, sickened by the pervasive Baathist mentality. Both Hamed and Al-Hajar ended up in the army. Both were jailed for deserting.

Unlike his friends in Al-Najeen, Rasheed had a chance to leave Iraq. His uncle, the Iraqi actor Al No’mani, consulted on and acted in David O. Russell’s Three Kings. During the shooting, he invited his nephew to move to L.A. and offered to get him a job on the set. But Rasheed didn’t want to leave Baghdad.

“I believe in something — the filmmaker belongs in his place,” he says. “I built my entire memory in this place. If we asked Quentin Tarantino to make a film about Baghdad, he would not do as good a job as me. And if I wanted to make a film about L.A., I would not make as good a film as him. I want to feel all the pain, all the changes in Baghdad.”

Like many of his friends, Rasheed was kicked out of film school. He claims it wasn’t for political reasons — “Drink a lot, fight a lot,” he says, grinning — but the Baathist mindset was inherently political, and he didn’t fit into it. Invited to work for Shebab TV, the channel run by Saddam’s son Uday, he refused. While his contemporaries produced epics about Hashemite kings, Rasheed learned his craft by writing TV scripts and shooting short documentaries on video. His last film, a documentary about a laborer and a 9-year-old shoeshine boy who touts a prostitute, landed him in trouble. The government film foundation confiscated the movie when a Baathist cinematographer denounced it as anti-regime.

 

When Baghdad fell, Al-Najeen emerged from underground. Hamed placed one of his sculptures — of a beautiful, stylized Iraqi family — on the pedestal from which a statue of Saddam had been toppled on live TV. Al-Hajar directed a play in the ruins of the National Theater, incorporating parts of Caligula. And Rasheed rushed to the government film ministry to see if he could find his film.

He was too late: Looters had burned it. So he set about buying film from the “Ali Babas,” who sold it by the kilo in the booming thieves’ markets, and from the silver peddlers who buy film to strip out the silver nitrate. Because celluloid was banned under U.N.-imposed sanctions — the chemicals were considered “dual-use” — the looted film stock was decades out of date. Taking advantage of his newfound freedom to use the Internet without being monitored, Rasheed wrote a series of e-mails, full of enthusiastic hyperbole, to the Kodak Corp. Kodak agreed to process the exposed film, discontinued in 1952, for free.

At 80 cans of film — about half of what a normal feature would use — the free processing will save them $7,808. But everything else costs money, including the stock itself, which ran about $7,000. All of Al-Najeen is helping out: Rasheed sold his car, a 1985 Passat, for $2,000; actor Samar Kahtan sold his land for $1,200; photo printer Turky sold a color enlarger, equipment essential to his livelihood, for $4,000 and borrowed $2,500 more. “We sold everything,” jokes Basim Al-Hajar, “except our honor.”

Rasheed is calling his movie Gheir Saleh — literally translated, it means “out of date.” But his English title is Under Exposure, a reference both to the properties of the old film stock and to his own newly redeemed generation of Iraqi artists. “We live lives that are underexposed, from Saddam Hussein to now,” says Rasheed. “We have been waiting for years to get this chance.”

Annia Ciezadlo is a freelance writer based in the Middle East. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, and POZ magazine.

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