Baghdad holds film festival against all odds
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.