Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Movie Successes Betray Dire State of Industry

While Iraqi directors are the toast of international festivals, domestic film sector struggles to survive.
By Hussam al-Saray
  • The Nujoom (Stars) cinema in central Baghdad’s Bab al-Sharqi neighborhood. The Stars is now one of only three movie theatres in Baghdad still open for business, showing a mix of old Egyptian and Lebanese comedies. (Photo: Hussam al-Saray)
    The Nujoom (Stars) cinema in central Baghdad’s Bab al-Sharqi neighborhood. The Stars is now one of only three movie theatres in Baghdad still open for business, showing a mix of old Egyptian and Lebanese comedies. (Photo: Hussam al-Saray)
  • When it opened in 1970, Baghdad’s Semiramis cinema was one of the most luxurious theatres in the region, boasting an orchestra pit and two balconies. (Photo: Hussam al-Saray)
    When it opened in 1970, Baghdad’s Semiramis cinema was one of the most luxurious theatres in the region, boasting an orchestra pit and two balconies. (Photo: Hussam al-Saray)
  • The Atlas theatre in central Baghdad rarely open its iron gates as films and movie-goers are hard to come by. (Photo: Hussam al-Saray)
    The Atlas theatre in central Baghdad rarely open its iron gates as films and movie-goers are hard to come by. (Photo: Hussam al-Saray)

The newly released feature Son of Babylon has led a wave of foreign-funded movies made by Iraqi directors that have been selected for prestigious international film festivals, but the success masks the grim realities of movie-making in Iraq and the immense effort required by the government and investors to revive a once-proud industry.

A well-attended screening of Son of Babylon in Baghdad earlier this month earned the movie glowing write-ups from international media, and its 31-year-old director, Mohamed al-Daradji, was toasted as an upcoming world cinema star. In January, Son of Babylon became the first Iraqi film to be shown at actor Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival in the United States.

At least three other films from Iraqi directors have been recently given awards or are up for consideration. The film Qaratina by Oday Rasheed was awarded a 385,000 euro grant for post-production and screened at the Rotterdam International Film Festival this month in Germany, while the Kirkuk football drama Kick Off from Shawkat Amin Korki earned the International Film Critics’ Award in 2009. Also last year, After the Downfall by Hiner Saleem was shown at the Dubai International Film Festival.

The accomplishments have not been lost on Iraq’s new generation of filmmakers.

“I am impressed that these directors… were able to make movies and win awards in spite of the devastating circumstances in our country,” Ali al-Sumarie, a film student at Baghdad University, said.

“I am most impressed by Mohamed al-Daradji and Oday Rasheed because they used 35-milimetre film. My friends and I will study these films.”

But for domestic industry stalwarts, the acclaim for foreign-funded movies made by mostly western-educated Iraqis is likely to do little to affect immediate improvements for aspiring actors and directors working in Iraq, where there’s practically no funding available for the film industry.

“Let’s face it: there are only a handful of directors who happen to be working abroad because of foreign support. This is not going to shake up the situation of cinema in Iraq, and we shouldn’t dare to call it a comeback of Iraqi film or any kind of New Iraqi Cinema,” said Bashir al-Majid, the lead actor in Son of Babylon and an established director in Iraq, who added that both the Kurdish regional government and Baghdad declined to finance Son of Babylon. In the end, the film was made with 1.5 million US dollars of private funding.

“In a country that has [a handful of] cinemas, it’s not exactly tempting for an Iraqi investor to plunge into this business. Movies aren’t only for festivals; there has to be market to sell them and market them. This is where the state’s support is needed, where it has great impact in creating a thriving business – as in other countries,” Majid continued.

“Filmmaking in Iraq is different from any other place in the world for two reasons. First, in other countries making a movie might cost you money and time; but in Iraq it can cost you your life. Second, in other places films are made with the support of production companies, or wealthy people, or the government; in Iraq, you are on your own in terms of financing, in terms of everything. ”

The story of how Majid and the rest of an Iraqi film crew were kidnapped by insurgents twice in the same day while shooting the film Ahlaam in 2004 is something of a legend in Baghdad’s cinematic circles. And although these days he tells the story for laughs, it a fitting example of the perils of making films in a country still occupied by a foreign power and beset by deep sectarian divisions.

“As long as religion is a dominant force in society and politics, cinema will continue to deteriorate. If a movie or an actor is branded as anti-religion, they will be shunned by the public and put in danger. It is very difficult for the current trend of hardline religion to co-exist with art, including cinema,” said Jameel al-Nafs, director of the 2007 documentary Abu Ghraib and Kilo 160, about the Iraqi Taekwondo team that was kidnapped in 2006 with 13 members murdered.

“The only way for cinema to come back to life is to change the attitudes of the public. This can only happen if a stable period emerges with the new government and there is an official push to promote domestic films and international events,” Nafs added.

Of the hundreds of cinemas that once premiered domestic and regional films in Baghdad, only three remain in operation: the Semiramis, Altlas and Nujoom theatres. In the rest of Iraq, excluding the Kurdistan region, there are only two cinemas in Basra and Mosul.

There is only one film department in all of Iraq’s universities, and the faculty at Baghdad University admits the equipment there is archaic. Attending movies has also lost its lustre for many Iraqis.

Things weren’t always this way. Film critic Ali Hmood al-Hasan recalls a Golden Age of Iraqi film that began in the 1940s. For Hasan, this was an era of ornate, turn-of-the century theatres like the Abba Khana and the Royal, and productions with Egyptian actress Madeeha Hamdie and French director Andre Shatan.

“For many years, aristocratic families went to movies with their families as a way for expressing their lofty style and prestige,” Abdul Hussein al-Saadi, a prominent screenwriter and film critic, said.

“From the Iraq-Iran war up until the end of the Saddam regime was the real decline in Iraqi cinema due to a remarkable weakness of government support. The decline started with the government’s propaganda films that resulted in cheap films artistically and intellectually.”

The regrettable condition of the few remaining cinemas in the capital is a sad testimony to the fate of Iraqi film sector.

“The sign for the [now closed] Babel Cinema has vanished. Baydha is now a department store. Nujoom is still open but it looks like an abandoned building. I heard Semiramis is being repaired but old posters and ticket prices are still posted outside,“ said Saleem al-Qaisie, 67, listing the movie theatres of his youth.

Fawzi al-Atroshi, deputy minister of culture and head of the department of cinema and theatre, said the ministry just doesn’t have the cash to resuscitate the domestic film industry.

“Any ambitious projects to finance the rebuilding of a film industry in Iraq would put financial pressure on the ministry. Such a project would require a stable environment and a level of infrastructure we can’t guarantee at this time,” Atroshi said.

For young up-and-coming movie-makers, this is not good news. “There is great potential for films in Iraq, the problem is that there are very few opportunities to make them,” film student Sumarie said.

Hussam al-Saray is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.
Iraq editor Charles McDermid contributed to this report. 

More IWPR's Global Voices