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'Telling our own stories': Inside Iraq's first independent film festival Open in fullscreen

Sahar Esfandiari

'Telling our own stories': Inside Iraq's first independent film festival

She Was Not Alone (2020) by Hussein al-Assadi. [Róisín Tapponi]

Date of publication: 19 August, 2020

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Iraq's first independent film festival aims to take back control of tired narratives of the country and showcase emerging and established talent in film.

Dedicated to showcasing the most exciting work from emerging and established Iraqi filmmakers, the Independent Iraqi Film Festival (IIFF) is the first of its kind. 

Running for a total of eight days from 21-28 August 2020, the festival programme will screen a total of 13 films, as well as host talks featuring Habibi Collective and shakomako.net, all accessible to audiences online for free via the IIFF platform. 

For decades, Iraq has suffered a challenging and tumultuous period of destruction and conflict. Stories told about the country in mainstream media and Hollywood during this time are largely focused on war, often hold political bias, and are distinctly lacking in Iraqi perspectives. 

Ahmed Habib is one of four talented Iraqi creatives behind IIFF. 

"For decades, Iraqis have watched their lives and deaths on full display in sounds and images beamed into their lives by filmmakers that couldn't even pronounce their names," he told The New Arab.

Fortunately, according to Habib a shift is now occurring where more and more Iraqis both in the country and the diaspora have started to tell their own stories using film as a medium. "This festival is for them, so that they are empowered to tell more stories," he says.

For decades, Iraqis have watched their lives and deaths on full display in sounds and images by filmmakers that couldn't even pronounce their names

Also on the founding team of creatives behind IIFF are Shahnaz Dulaimy, a feature film editor who has worked on award winning titles such as the Oscar nominated Theeb by Naji Abu Nowar, Róisín Tapponi, an Irish-Iraqi curator and founder of Habibi Collective, and Israa al-Kamali, an Iraqi writer, poet and film enthusiast.  

Together, they hope that the festival will not only offer an authentic portrayal of Iraq and its people, but also inject life into the largely undervalued Iraqi film industry. 

Over eight days, the carefully curated film programme will showcase the diversity and resilience of the Iraqi people and the breadth of culture to global audiences. 

Qarantina (2010) by Oday Rasheed

Among the feature length films in the programme is Iraqi auteur filmmaker Mohammed Al-Daradji's documentary War, Love, God & Madness - which highlights the difficulty of filmmaking in Iraq. 

The topic underpins the current state of the film industry in the country. Decades of destruction by foreign and local powers have undoubtedly had an effect on the filmmaking landscape. 

"Under these circumstances, filmmakers have very little support and barely any means to work with," says Dulaimy. 

Some issues Dulaimy identified to The New Arab were insufficient film funding, inadequate production and post-production facilities, and a lack of security for actors and crews.

The founders hope that the festival will not only offer an authentic portrayal of Iraq and its people, but also inject life into the largely undervalued Iraqi film industry

"Making a great film is difficult as it is, making one in a war-torn country, it is extraordinary," she says.  

IIFF hope that the festival itself can aid in providing exposure for filmmakers in the country. 

"Spotlighting Iraqi cinema, and knowing there is an audience for it, will only encourage young talent and emerging filmmakers to get out there and tell their stories," Dulaimy told The New Arab

Regionally in the Arab world it is cities like Dubai and Beirut which stand out as recognised, well-funded hotspots for Arab cinema.

Sabyea (2019) by Dhyaa Joda

"That's not the case for Iraq, and for me that's what makes Iraqi cinema so interesting - as shown by our 80+ submissions (for the festival programme) there are a lot of filmmakers in Iraq, but there remains a lot of work to be done to construct a local, regional and international community," explains Tapponi. 

The line-up

Running alongside the feature films in the programme are two short film programmes. The first, Tracking Iraq: New Wave Cinema, explores life in Iraq from different vantage points of people such as Yazidi women living in the valley of a mountain in northern Iraq in Dhyaa Joda's Sabeya (2019). 

The second shorts programme, Gender Utopia: Contemporary Feminisms in Iraqi Cinema, features the outspoken voices of young Iraqi women including that of Zahraa Ghandour and collaborator Tarek Turkey's experimental film I Dream (2020) - a sensual study and reflection on isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The focus on highlighting a diverse set of voices and narratives was an intentional one. Israa al-Kamali highlights the issue of misrepresentation of Iraq and Iraqi voices in the mainstream media. 

Iraqis have been misrepresented in the media for a long time. Ignorance, lack of research and care, as well as racism are part of the problem

"Iraqis have been misrepresented in the media for a long time," she says. "Ignorance, lack of research and care, as well as racism are part of the problem, but another issue is lack of space and support for Iraqis to tell their own stories." 

IIFF released a call out for submissions over social media and via word of mouth and received more than 80 submissions from emerging and established filmmakers. 

They then watched each submission and Roisin Tapponi curated the programme, which was edited and approved by the rest of the team. 

"It was important for us to reflect the diversity of Iraqi filmmaking in our programme, from experimental, to feminist, to narrative feature films, we wanted to represent the multiple intersections working within our film industry," said Tapponi.

Appreciation from Iraqi audiences and filmmakers 

The festival has been met with overwhelming support from within the region as well as the diaspora.

One of the messages sent to the IIF team reads: "I'm really happy to see this. I've never visited my country and I feel alienated almost every day without the warmth of Iraq […] Seeing a creative Iraqi community thrive means the world to me." 

War, Love, God & Madness (2008) by Mohammed al-Daradji

Élodie Baldwin is a film director whose film Shahmaran (2020) will be screened as part of the Gender Utopia programme of shorts. 

"Being Scottish-Iraqi, it (being a part of the festival) makes me feel like I can be a part of something that allows me to further explore my heritage and how I can incorporate this into my art practice," she tells The New Arab.

As an emerging filmmaker in the Iraqi diaspora, Baldwin hopes that the festival will open more doors for Iraqi cinema to be explored on an international scale.

In the future, the team hope to take the festival to Iraq.

"I cannot underestimate the power of screening these films in real-life situations and the physical presence of a community," says Tapponi. 

"And if anyone doesn't let us do that, I'll throw my shoes at them."

Sahar Esfandiari is a British-Iranian writer focused on the Middle East and its diaspora

Follow her on Twitter: @saharesfandiari

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