Baghdad holds film festival against all odds

Friday 16/10/2015
Entrance to the festival

Baghdad - Against all odds, the sev­enth Baghdad Inter­national Film Festival (BIFF) took place in Oc­tober at the Iraqi Nation­al Theatre in parallel to deadly car bombings that rocked Baghdad and other parts of the country.

However, the five-day festival, featuring al-Qurban (The Sacri­fice), an Iranian movie, at the grand opening drew criticism from some Arab directors, reflecting the grow­ing anti-Iran mood in Iraq.

Movie critic Ali Jassem, ex­pressed reservations about the fes­tival’s opening with a film on Shia saints. “This gave the impression that the organisers played on sensi­tive sectarian sentiments, since the movie depicts the battle of Taf [in Karbala], which is revered by the Shias, who constitute the majority in the country,” he said.

He acknowledged, however, that al-Qurban, which won the festi­val’s grand prize in the Long Fiction Original competition, was among the productions featured at the festival with advanced cinematog­raphy featuring leading Iraqi and Arab artists.

“Right from the first day one could sense how popular the film is, attracting a large audience who was more interested by the historic event it featured rather than its im­portance as a movie production,” Jassem said.

Iraqi director Raed Mushatat, whose film Samt el Rai (Silence of the Shepherd) won an award at the Alexandria Film Festival, said he was surprised that a non-Iraqi mov­ie would inaugurate the festival.

“It is a particular moment to have a film festival in Baghdad and, as such, the public should have been presented with an Iraqi production, not the contrary,” Mushatat said.

Sentiments hostile to Iran, a key ally of former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has been accused of rampant corruption, have been on the rise. Slogans such as “Iran, go out. Iraq is free” were shouted in anti-corruption demonstrations in Baghdad throughout August.

However, in addition to honour for al-Qurban, the Iranian film The Fish and I took first prize in the short drama competition.

Iraqi director Marwa Hamoudy’s Genocide took first prize in the Arab women filmmakers category while On the Banks of the Tigris, an en­try from Australian Marsha Emer­man won the Documentary award. The New Horizons Competition was claimed by Ayman Alshatri for Warm Night.

BIFF Director Ammar al-Aradi, said having the festival was in itself a great challenge, amid the absence of government support for cultural life in Iraq. “The idea of holding the festival was born from the heart of the tragedy that the country is liv­ing. We were determined to contin­ue with our life against all the odds and this we have achieved when we first launched the festival in Bagh­dad in 2005,” Aradi said.

Up to 1,100 films from 40 coun­tries applied to be featured in the festival and 100 were selected for the competition.

However, organisers failed to at­tract significant Arab and foreign attendance for the festival. “Many Arab and foreign artists apologised for not attending, citing the dete­riorating security in the country,” Aradi said.

He stressed that BIFF was largely focused on promoting young tal­ent from Iraq and abroad but gets poor support from the government, which is reeling from an acute fi­nancial crisis.

“We are basically assisted by dip­lomatic missions and art groups and organisations. The money is­sue largely affected the festival this year, especially with regard to composition of the jury, which was limited to Iraqi experts,” Aradi said.

Jury member Hikmat Baydani, a professor of cinematography in the Iraqi Academy of Fine Arts praised the festival’s organising committee, which he said “deployed tremen­dous individual efforts to organise the event in Baghdad at such diffi­cult times”.

He said most of the participating movies were secured through con­tacts that the festival’s committee had built up over the years.

“Some excellent films were screened, including some which had their international premiere in the festival, like this year’s winner al-Qurban. But the Iraqi participa­tion mainly consisted of graduation projects of fine arts students,” Bay­dani said, noting that BIFF “pro­vided an opportunity for young Ira­qis to show their talent despite the difficult conditions in which they live”.

Movie critics underscored “poor preparedness” to host such a cul­tural event, including a shortage of screening rooms and good produc­tions.

“I have attended more than one edition of the festival and, unfor­tunately, I don’t feel it meets my aspirations as a cinematographer,” commented Iraqi director Bareh Jabbar.

“The majority of the participating movies are weak and do not suit the Iraqi society, especially the produc­tions of young beginners. I believe the festival is made for amateurs and students of fine arts and not for professional cinematographers,” Jabbar added.

Mushatat also underscored the need to “improve the level of film­making in Iraq through the organi­sation of more serious events that focus on the quality of sound and picture of productions.

BIFF was created in 2004 by the Iraqi Filmmakers Without Borders non-governmental organisation, a year after the US-led invasion of Iraqi that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. Organisers say the festival is aimed at supporting Iraqi cinematography and dissemi­nating cinematic culture as a means to affirm humanitarian values.