Iraq: Filmmaking under occupation

(308)

Maysoon Pachachi interview with Anne Ashford

Iraq is constantly in the news, but the coverage which dominates our televisions is one-dimensional. For Maysoon Pachachi, an Iraqi filmmaker, it silences the voices which matter most-those of ordinary Iraqis: "I was very struck during the first Gulf War, when I was watching hours and hours of media coverage. You never saw one ordinary Iraqi person expressing an opinion. And there are so many stories in Iraq, and so many years of being silenced."

With a colleague, Kasim Abid, she decided to open the Independent Film and Television College in Baghdad, offering short, intensive courses free of charge. Sponsorship comes from private charities, individuals and trade unions. After decades of Baathist dictatorship and three years of foreign occupation, safeguarding the project's independence was vital to Maysoon and her colleagues.

The everyday violence in Baghdad forms the backdrop to the work of the school. It is increasingly difficult for students to come to the courses. "In the present course we have two people who have had relatives kidnapped and one of them had his relatives killed as a result," explains Maysoon. "The only way we've managed to keep going is to be completely flexible and to improvise. Recently we had to close the school down for a couple of weeks, because there were two explosions very close by that blew out one of the windows of the school, and three people were kidnapped, one from inside our building, and two from the street around the corner."

Women students face particular obstacles, despite long traditions of Iraqi women's participation in education and employment. "We have a rule that at least a quarter of the students on each course should be women. And so far we've had more than that. Women are keen, but it has been difficult for them to take part. Two women who started the current documentary course had to stop, because they live in an area which is quite a way away. But I think they'll come back, or they'll join another course. They are very committed." Hiba Bassem, one of the school's first students, is proof that perseverance can pay off. Her film Baghdad Days won the Silver Award at the Al-Jazeera International Film Festival earlier this year.

Documentaries

This new generation of Iraqi filmmakers has to overcome a legacy of cultural starvation. Under Saddam Hussein, filmmaking was reduced to propaganda, while today Iraq is awash with DVDs of Hollywood's latest movies. Maysoon's own approach to politically engaged filmmaking also contrasts with current trends in the Arab world. "If you look at a lot of the stuff on Arab television, it is schmaltzy and sentimental. They are talking about something which is really painful, somebody who has lost a child for example, but before you have a chance to empathise with that person, or see them as a real human being who likes cooking, sewing or playing football, and has also lost a son, you see them as a symbol and you hear all kinds of schmaltzy music. There is no space for you."

Her film, Return to the Land of Wonders, traces her journey to Baghdad in the company of her father, Adnan Pachachi, who was leading the US-appointed governing council's constitutional committee. The camera slips between the former exiles on the council as they debate the fiction of Iraqi sovereignty under US control, and Baghdadi families struggling to survive bombs, arrests and kidnappings. Her father's colleagues tell her of their euphoria as they find a form of words which will keep the governing council united and US officials happy. The film moves on quietly to an interview with a former prisoner from Abu Ghraib.

"The process of making a documentary film is fraught. It is real people's lives that you are examining, but you're putting it together. Even if you're trying to be as unmanipulative as possible, it's still your story, your metaphors. I'm aware that when I'm making a film I'm not going to resolve this contradiction. It's like I'm saying, 'This is what I've discovered. I'm having to think about it. What do you think about it?'"

A deeply personal film, Return to the Land of Wonders was not easy to make, but Maysoon argues it was necessary. "Art under occupation is a matter of survival. The world is being fragmented and unmade, and you need a way to think about what's going on, using the camera as a means of discovery. You then put the images together to construct something from the shards of experience. I think that it really is critical at a time of occupation and war - that is exactly when you need it."


Maysoon Pachachi was talking to Anne Ashford. If you would like more information about Pachachi's films or to make a donation to the Independent Film and Television College in Baghdad please contact maysoon@oxymoronfilms.demon.co.uk.