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The Dutch filmmaker Shuchen Tan, centre, shooting on location in Baghdad. Her documentary, Baghdad Film School, which screened at DIFF this week, highlights not only the everyday troubles of life in a country reeling from dictatorship, invasion and civil war, but the tremendous risks so often taken by people determined to learn the art of filmmaking.
The Dutch filmmaker Shuchen Tan, centre, shooting on location in Baghdad. Her documentary, Baghdad Film School, which screened at DIFF this week, highlights not only the everyday troubles of life in a country reeling from dictatorship, invasion and civil war, but the tremendous risks so often taken by people determined to learn the art of filmmaking.

Notable films from Iraq showcase courage

A raft of Iraqi films at the Dubai International Film Festival show impressive creativity and resourcefulness, often in the face of grave danger.

Independent film schools don't usually find themselves the targets of bomb attacks. But the founders of Baghdad's first independent film college had been warned something might happen.

"There are militias here who consider cinema the work of the devil," says Kasim Abid in Baghdad Film School, a new documentary that captures the work of the college and the lives of its students. "First they threaten us, then they might hurt us."

Abid, along with Maysoon Pachachi, both highly respected Iraqi-born filmmakers working in London, set up the school in 2004 to help give a voice to a new generation of aspiring Iraqi cinematographers.

"In a country like Iraq, which had been traumatised for a millennia by occupation and invasions, the only thing that has really stood in front of that is creative articulation, the making of something when the world is getting unmade around all of you," says Pachachi.

But having emerged from the cultural abyss that was Saddam's reign, this young legion of budding Iraqi writers, directors and producers found that in the vacuum of power left after the invasion, radical groups were waging war on anything they considered forbidden, including cinema.

Sensing the danger, Abid chose not to advertise the address of the college, not even putting up a sign above the door indicating what was within. Low-key was key.

Unfortunately, his fears were proved right on November 15, 2006, when a car bomb exploded outside the premises, causing considerable damage. Nobody was injured in the blast, but the decision was made to close the school until the situation improved.

Baghdad Film School, directed by the Dutch filmmaker Shuchen Tan, picks up the pieces from Abid's return to Baghdad in 2009 and his reopening of the college. Following each of the students - in many cases via their own video diaries - the film highlights not only the everyday troubles of life in a country reeling from dictatorship, invasion and civil war, but the tremendous risks taken by those determined to learn the art of filmmaking.

"You cannot just go out and start filming on the street," says Tan. Wearing an abaya while outside, Tan hid her camera in a bag covered with her jacket, keeping much of the filming inside or from the rooftops, away from prying eyes.

Every one of the students in the film has a personal story about dealing with the militias wielding a deadly grip on various parts of the city. One explains how he was forced to cut his hair, which was deemed too long by four armed thugs who cornered him on the street. "Cut your hair or we'll chop your head off," he was told. He obliged.

More harrowingly, a former student almost lost his life while filming a documentary about a well-known café once popular with writers. Shot in the legs, he was left for dead on the street, ignored by passing cars before eventually being saved by a woman walking by. He says he thought he had been watched while filming the previous day.

"Iraqi filmmakers are really in danger," says Kassem Hawal, the acclaimed Iraqi writer and director whose work dates back to the 1950s. "How can you make films in this situation?"

Hawal says that the new powers in control have destroyed any connection with Iraq's cinematic past. "They've burned our films, negatives and sound recordings." Even the cinema theatres, once grandiose picturehouses, have all been ransacked, he says. "We have no history any more."

Having left Iraq in 1970, Hawal recently returned to shoot his latest film, The Singer, a tense drama based on real-life events from a party held by Saddam's infamous son Uday in the 1990s. But rather than take the 45 days that Kassem says would usually have been needed for the filming, he wrapped it all up in just 29. "I wanted to finish the film as quickly as I could because I just wasn't sure what would happen." Everything was then immediately shipped back to Paris, where the post-production took place.

With the underground nature of Baghdad's current film industry in mind, Hawal recently published a book aimed at providing advice to those trying to work in the current situation. "It talks about technology, how you can use a small camera that is still high quality, and how you can shoot the material and send it outside the country."

Another award-winning filmmaker returning to Iraq with a video camera was London-based Koutaiba Al Janabi. Leaving Baghdad, Al Janabi's first full-length feature, is a road movie set in the 1990s that follows Saddam's personal cameraman as he flees Iraq into Europe. The first 10 minutes are set in the Iraqi capital, which Al Janabi managed to shoot in just five days.

"I went with my camera and a small crew, but didn't tell anybody. The situation was very bad and I was worried if anybody knew," he admits.

As it turns out, one of the only people who knew of Al Janabi's filming in Baghdad was Kasim Abid from the film school, who gets a special mention in Leaving Baghdad's credits.

"He was with me, he organised my journey in Baghdad and helped me a great deal," says Al Janabi, who admits that Abid was a hero of his while growing up in the 1970s.

Despite the clear dangers and difficulties faced by filmmakers working in Iraq, there are signs that these hurdles aren't managing to stop the new wave of creative outpouring. Erfan Rashid, director of the Dubai International Film Festival's Arab Programme, points to the figures: "If we look at these last seven years, there have been plenty of films coming out of Iraq. But from the mid 1940s until 2003, Iraqi cinema produced just 99 titles, and not all of them we could really call films."

And not all of Iraq's recent cinematic output has been slipping under the radar. Mohamed Al Daradji's Son of Babylon, set two weeks after the fall of Saddam as a distraught mother attempts to find her missing son across a devastated country, won a host of awards across this year's festival circuit.

But Al Daradji, like Hawal and Al Janabi, plies his filmmaking trade outside of Iraq, having fled in the 1990s to Holland. And, as Shuchen Tan immediately noticed while filming Baghdad Film School, it's a somewhat different experience. "Being an independent filmmaker in Iraq is not the same as being an independent filmmaker in Europe."

For Rashid, the barriers against building this industry within Iraq come from the complete lack of infrastructure for the arts. "We need a system, with a government, ministries and a private sector that believes in this sector and will support young directors."

While this doesn't look likely to happen soon, it seems that in the meantime it's almost entirely up to the country's aspiring filmmakers, such as those at Baghdad's first independent film college, to keep striving to make their ideas reality. Thankfully, despite the threats, this doesn't look likely to stop.

"Iraqis are stubborn by nature," says Emad, the former student who was shot in the legs. "That's why I continued. Because if you lose your creativity, you're dead. And I don't want to be dead."

Leaving Baghdad screens today, 3.45pm, at the Mall of the Emirates; The Singer screens December 18, 3.45pm, Mall of the Emirates.


The text in this article corrects a previous version in which a student's quote, "cut your hair or we'll cut your hair off" has been corrected to "cut your hair or we'll chop your head off".

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