Private initiative keeps Iraqi film industry alive

Sunday 14/05/2017
Independent platform. Visitors attending the 3 Minutes 3 Days Film Festival in Baghdad. (Oumayma Omar)

Baghdad - Film production in Iraq had hit rock bottom following decades of international sanctions and wars and vi­olence that left most of the country’s industries in shambles. However, private cultural institu­tions and film production houses have been trying to pick up the pieces by organising film festivals relying on private donations in the absence of government support.

3 Minutes 3 Days Film Festival, hosted by Art City for Cinema and Television in Baghdad, provided an independent and rare platform for young Iraqi directors to showcase their talents in the production of short movies.

“Artists cannot concede to a gov­ernment ideology or directives. The private production institutions played a constructive role in en­couraging artists to present their work and enhance independent movie industry in the country,” said Mejd Hameed, winner of the festi­val’s first prize for his short movie “Baghdad Photographer.”

“The private film festivals are very suitable for artists in a country reeling under the policies of con­servative religious parties which control everything, including cul­ture and arts.”

“While private initiatives should not be an alternative to govern­ments’ financial and logistic sup­port, they provide the largest plat­form for expression and free choice of movie topics, reflecting the situa­tion in Iraq, which the government tries to conceal and evade,” Hameed added.

“Baghdad Photographer” depicts the hardships of an Iraqi family who lost its breadwinners — the father and eldest son — to violence in Iraq. “The photographer in the film tries to document the life of this broken family and the injustices it suffered due to dysfunctional governments and wrong policies,” Hameed said.

Iraqi performing artists work in difficult conditions, their efforts compounded by damaged infra­structure, electricity shortages and limited educational opportunities. Many feel the constraints of reli­gious conservatism in post-2003 Iraq, with Islamist parties and mi­litias trying to impose radical views of Islam on the arts.

Director of Art City for Cinema and Television Hikmat al-Baydani said he hopes that the 3 Minutes 3 Days Film Festival will help revive the local film industry, which dur­ing the 24-year rule of Saddam Hus­sein mainly served as a propaganda tool for his Ba’athist party.

“In Iraq, we have lost the tradi­tion of organising festivals,” Bay­dani said. “Through this simple experience, I am trying to set an example, which I hope will be fol­lowed by others. I have included what I learned and witnessed in fes­tivals abroad and proved that we are able to organise events of interna­tional standards despite our limited resources.”

The number, 3, has characterised the 3 Minutes 3 Days Film Festi­val. It occurred in March, the third month of the year, lasted three days, had a three-member jury, compet­ing short films were 3 minutes long and three winners were announced.

“The festival seeks to enhance young talents in the film produc­tion business, giving them the op­portunity as well as the challenge to produce short films that simulate what the country is experiencing,” Baydani said.

Al-Nahj International Film Fes­tival, in cooperation with Karbala Satellite TV, in the central Iraq gov­ernorate of Karbala is another ex­ample of private efforts to stimulate film production in Iraq. The festival features short films that could be fiction, documentaries or anima­tion.

“The festivals are organised with personal efforts and private dona­tions,” says cinema critic and mem­ber of Al-Nahj Festival jury Salem Chadhan. “Government funding would have provided the jump-start the industry needed but this has not been a government prior­ity.”

Chadhan blamed the absence of government support on rampant corruption and lack of profession­alism in public institutions. “The state and the officials in charge of cultural life in the country are the least interested. All they want is to make profit from the handful of fes­tivals they deign to hold,” Chadhan said.

Iraqi cinema dates to the 1950s, although production did not ex­ceed more than a few films a year even then. The government’s cin­ema department was established in 1959 but the heyday of the industry came in the 1970s, when the gov­ernment established its first thea­tre, allocated more funds for fea­ture-length movies and attracted Arab film-makers to help.

After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, movie archives and equip­ment were looted and later sectar­ian violence drained the country of artistic talent.

Independent film production houses struggled on their own, with some notable successes such as the privately funded war film “Son of Babylon,” which won a number of international awards and was se­lected as Iraq’s official entry for the 2011 Academy Awards.