“I don’t like film festivals,” Roísín Tapponi, Irish-Iraqi curator, activist, and founder of Habibi Collective, tells me from the get go about the ethos behind the Independent Iraqi Film Festival she, along with three other Iraqi creatives, are organising. “They’re really exclusive and culturally gatekeeping. To enter a film festival, you need to pay an extortionate entry fee, you need to have a certified producer, and you usually need a European distributor.”
Shahnaz Dulaimy, feature film editor with credits on Oscar-nominated Jordanian epic Theeb (dir. Naji Abu Nowar) and When I Saw You (dir. Annemarie Jacir) is also on the organising team, and echoes the need for an alternative to conventional film festivals. “No one has the money to, one, go out and shoot a film, and when they do, to put more money on top of that to submit it to a film festival where they can make a name for themselves.”
The inequalities of society are always directly reflected within the film industry.
The sentiment—combined with the original idea by Iraqi writer Israa Al-Kamali and digital entrepreneur Ahmed Habib to find a way to spotlight Iraqi cinema—is the inaugural Independent Iraqi Film Festival (IIFF). For a week starting Friday, August 21st, the IIFF will be a completely online, free to attend showcase of films by both established and emerging Iraqi filmmakers.
The festival will feature 13 films spanning narratives, documentaries, and essay film, both short and feature-length. The programme kicks off Friday with celebrated Iraqi director Mohamed Al Daradji’s Iraq: War, Love, God, and Madness. The extraordinary story of how a cast and crew struggled against time, imprisonment, injuries, and terrorist attacks to make a film, Al Daradji's gripping documentary perfectly encapsulates the inward-looking meta nature that permeates and defines the festival itself.
Still from She Was Not Alone by Hussein Al-Asadi, a short that explores the life of an amusing elderly woman who lives alone in a small reed hut amidst the marshes of Southern Iraq.
“That’s basically the core of the films we’re getting, that these filmmakers want to make a film, but they don’t know how to,” explains Dulaimy. “Or they don’t have the means to. It’s so ironic, and I think it’s beautiful. The opening film of the festival is such an important introduction as to why it’s so difficult to go out there and shoot a film in Iraq. I want audiences to keep that in mind, that it’s not easy to make a film in a warzone.”
Dulaimy explains how—in contrast to countries like Lebanon and Egypt whose film industries produce works with such strong identities that it barely takes a second to recognise where a movie was made—Iraqi cinema doesn't have an equivalent industry. “Decades of war and decades of destruction have precluded any support for the film industry. It’s a luxury; it’s not considered a necessity. So we don’t really have films that represent Iraqi cinema—Iraqi cinema has no identity.”
Decades of war and decades of destruction have precluded any support for the film industry...So we don’t really have films that represent Iraqi cinema—Iraqi cinema has no identity.
In lieu of a single cohesive identity, what the IIFF is doing is focusing on voices from across different Iraqi identities and experiences. The diaspora—like that of many Arab countries, impacted by decades of migration, refuge, and exile—is millions of Iraqis for whom the country represents a home they had to leave, or a place where they’ve never been: an experience reflected in the festival’s showcase.
“There’s this beautiful juxtaposition between the films in Iraq and the films by Iraqis in the diaspora,” says Dulaimy. “The films inside Iraq talk about the situation and longing to leave, trying to escape and leave this destruction behind. But on the other hand, you have the films made outside Iraq, that always talk about a memory, a distant past, and a longing to return to Iraq. They’re exact opposites, but both of them talk about their love for Iraq, and the memory of what Iraq used to be.”
Still from The Survivors of Firdous Square by Adel Khaled recounts the story of an Iraqi artist collective who lived and worked through the destruction of the 2003 war. The film focuses on Bassem, the sculptor whose iconic metal work took the place of the infamous fallen statue of Saddam Hussain.
Two of the festival’s three feature films are stories of diaspora by filmmakers exiled from their homeland by the threats of dictatorship. Released on the 15th anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq in 2018, Kasim Abid’s Mirrors of Diaspora explores themes of exile, creativity, identity, and war told through the lives of seven Iraqi artists living outside the country of their birth for close to half a century. The documentary will be screened on Monday, the 24th of August.
On Friday, August 28th, followed by a Q&A with the director, Baghdad In My Shadow will be screened. Swiss-Iraqi filmmaker Samir’s 2019 thriller follows three Iraqis—a failed author, a wife in hiding, and a clandestine gay IT-specialist—haunted by their political pasts, set in a fictional Iraqi communist café in the heart of West London.
The core of the films we’re getting is that these filmmakers want to make a film, but they don’t know how to, or they don’t have the means to. It’s so ironic, and I think it’s beautiful.
In putting the programme together, another discrepancy was made clear to the volunteer team between diaspora filmmakers and those in Iraq. Of the over 80 submissions they received, only 20% were women, all of whom were in the diaspora and many of whom Tapponi had personally reached out to because she knew about their previous work. This brings up an important question: where are the women filmmakers in Iraq?
“The inequalities of society are always directly reflected within the film industry,” Tapponi explains. “And yes, it says something about society that men have these opportunities and women do not. But at the same time, you need to keep in mind the context of Iraq. It is a warzone; all of the men that made these films risked their lives to do it. You’ll see whe you watch some of the documentaries especially. So it’s not as simple as ‘women in Iraq need to make more films.’ There are real safety issues, that are obviously gendered, but no less real because of that.”
Still from one of the IIFF's feature films, Qarantina by Oday Rasheed follows a broken family who lives under an incestuous patriarch in old Baghdad, whose financial situation compels them to live with a sullen and mysterious boarder, a contract killer.
With the obstacles to filmmaking, the tension of ongoing instability, and a homeland left behind, it should come as no surprise that many of the films are both thematically and stylistically defined by their circumstances. For one, Tapponi describes a lot of the films as ‘angry,’ expressing deep discontent with the way things are.
Aesthetically, however, they also seem to be creating something new, best expressed in the ‘Tracking Iraq: New Wave Cinema’ showcase taking place on Saturday, the 22nd of August. “They’re all handheld, with this point-and-shoot technique, super lo-fi, street-cast, talking about social issues. But they’re also light-hearted, and all by young filmmakers.”
“What characterises this new wave of Iraqi filmmakers is, for one, this guerrilla-style filmmaking,” Tapponi continues. “But it’s also a passion for cinema. There’s no money in this, there’s no opportunity for commercial success, and they’re risking their lives for it.”
There’s this beautiful juxtaposition between the films in Iraq and the films by Iraqis in the diaspora...They’re exact opposites, but both of them talk about their love for Iraq, and the memory of what Iraq used to be.
Out of this unwavering commitment to film also comes a refreshing level of self-awareness: most of the films being screened break the fourth wall, endowed as they are with a self-reflexive quality that continually draws attention to its own filmmaking. The directors and crews, for instance, show up in most of the films. “This meta element seems to characterise the new wave as well,” explains Tapponi. “It’s bringing to the forefront this question of what Iraqi cinema is now, and it’s something that is actively being questioned throughout the film.”
But importantly, because the country lacks a strong cinema scene, because there are no workshops or funding opportunities or supporting organisations, the films are arthouse creations, with street-sourced production value. For Shahnaz, critical to enjoying the festival is embracing the grunge, judging the films on their own merit, and seeing their potential outside of rigid frameworks.
Still from Sabeya by Dhyaa Joda. Set during the height of ISIS' brutal campaign against the Yazidi community in northern Iraq, the short tells the story of one woman who builds a fort of resilience and wit to protect herself and her only daughter.
“I believe in these films and I believe in these filmmakers,” Shahnaz says. “And I’m scared that audiences are going to come into this festival expecting Hollywood-type films. So that’s why it’s very important, with the way that our program is laid out, that people watch the first film, understand the background of filmmaking in Iraq—understand all these obstacles and challenges—so when they watch the rest of the films, they get them, they understand them the way that we do. Every quirk, every error, every single mistake, has a place in my heart.”
Central to the IIFF, and Iraqi cinema more generally, is that it needs to be understood on its own terms. When we work with these grand criteria to judge cinema or art or music, we fail, because we don’t see things on their own terms. We don’t understand what it’s like to shoot in a warzone, and that not every film can tap into that balance of grunge and production value that the world’s largest film festivals want to see.
“We have our own identity, and we’re building on it,” says Shahnaz. “We don’t want to look like US productions, we don’t want to look like European productions. Because that’s them. It’s not us. And we’re slowly building with what we have. And we’re not that far behind; we just need a push. We need funding, we need education, we need workshops.”
Check out the full programme and how to tune in to the first Independent Iraqi Film Festival here.