x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Move over Neymar, ‘Baghdad Messi’ ready to tour Brazil

Award-winning football movie based in Iraq and aided by Dubai company will make the rounds in Brazil, writes Gary Meenaghan.

A scene from Baghdad Messi, which has captured the imagination of football fans. Courtesy A Team Productions
A scene from Baghdad Messi, which has captured the imagination of football fans. Courtesy A Team Productions

The little boy on the big screen hops frustratedly, although truth be told, even if he was exhausted or exhilarated, he would still hop, since he has only one leg.

He is playing football on a dusty plain in Iraq and wearing a Barcelona shirt with Messi 10 on the back. He is the goalkeeper and is being cruelly told by a teammate to go sell tomatoes: “You don’t need both legs for that.”

The film on the big screen is called Baghdad Messi and tells the tale of Hamoudi, 10, who is obsessed with the beautiful game. It was given its Brazilian premiere last week as part of CineFoot, an annual film festival based in Rio de Janeiro that screens only films related to football.

With the World Cup less than a week away, Baghdad Messi is set to travel Brazil as part of the CineFoot Tour and is expected to be shown at several of the 12 host cities.

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Sahim Omar Kalifa, the film’s writer and director, will remain at home in Belgium during this month’s World Cup, but as a football fan – he supports Manchester United over Barcelona – he is delighted to know his film is being screened in the country renowned as the game’s spiritual home.

“In Iraq, Brazil has the most fans,” Kalifa said. “They like Brazil very much because the Iraqi people are as crazy as Brazilian people for football. It is said that around 90 per cent of the men in Iraq play football. To have our film shown during the World Cup has a very special and symbolic taste. Why? Simply for the fact the tournament is taking place in Brazil.”

Kalifa was born in Kurdistan in 1980 and moved to Belgium in 2001 to be with his parents. The idea for Baghdad Messi, he said, came from his own melancholy at not being able to play football with his friends any longer.

In Portuguese, the Brazilians have a special word for such longing – “saudade” – and Kalifa was evidently a sufferer.

“When I was in Iraq, I played football every day and football made me really very happy,” he said. “When I went to Belgium, I stopped with football and after a while I discovered that I am not as happy as I expected to be. I concluded that, by not playing football anymore in Belgium, this was the reason for my sadness.

“Baghdad Messi is a film about love and how love can make your life so soft and happy.”

The 16-minute film took more than five months to complete, cost between US$130,000 and $150,000 (Dh477,500–Dh551,000) and was partly funded by Enjaaz, a Dubai Film Market initiative. It is co-produced by the Dubai Entertainment and Media Organisation. As for how the emirate’s involvement came about, Kalifa replied: “They liked the story, I guess.”

Since debuting at the Dubai Film Festival in December 2012, Baghdad Messi has won more than 40 awards from around the globe, from Argentina to Armenia, Montenegro to Morocco. Yet it is first prize at a small event in Bermuda earlier this year that Kalifa holds dearest, and for good reason.

“The Best Short Film award at the Bermuda International Film Festival is very interesting for us because by winning this award, it makes our film eligible for next year’s Oscars,” he said. “We now hope that in January our film will be one of the five nominated.”

Until then, though, CineFoot will continue to provide exposure.

Antonio Leal, the festival director, said the event is expanding its borders and even before the World Cup tour begins next week, the festival – now in its fifth year – has already shown a record 79 films across three cities: Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte.

At the opening night in Sao Paulo, a group of around 150 enthusiasts watched a short documentary showing rare black-and-white footage of the only previous World Cup to be held in Brazil. Taking place in 1950, the hosts reached the final, but lost 2-1 to Uruguay.

Cruelly, like the Baghdad Messi, the goalkeeper was blamed.


Extra Time, Episode 32: Gary Meenaghan soaking in the atmosphere in Brazil.