Private initiative keeps Iraqi film industry alive
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.