Behind Baghdad's silver-screen: Meeting the catalyst for Iraqi cinema's reinvention

Behind Baghdad's silver-screen: Meeting the catalyst for Iraqi cinema's reinvention
Movie maker Mohammed al-Daradji's Baghdad film school aims to build a world-class industry in a city that has already seen too many horrors, reports Gareth Browne.
6 min read
27 June, 2017
Iraqi cinema has seen a resurgence in recent years, catalysed by Al-Daridji's work [AFP]
A breezy colonial-era building on the banks of the River Tigris in Baghdad is perhaps as far away as one can get from the sound stages of Pinewood Studios or the elaborate sets of Hollywood.

But after years of strife, one man is doing what he can to build a world-class film industry in a city that has seen horrors more grave than in any silver-screen epic.

That man is Mohammed al-Daradji, a frizzy-haired 30-something who fled Saddam's Iraq in 1995 for Europe, where he studied film-making. Now he is taking the traumatic tales of his fellow Iraqis to the world.

The building was formerly home to one Sassoon Ekell, an Iraqi Jew who served as the country's first Minister of Finance. Al-Daradji, surrounded by three or four young proteges, is putting the finishing touches to his upcoming film, "The Journey". It is a film set in Baghdad's central train station at the height of the country's sectarian violence in 2007.

A young woman enters the crowded station intending to carry out a suicide attack. The films then whisks her on a journey through the lives of her would-be victims. It is a film about some of Iraq's darkest days, written, directed and starred in by the very Iraqis who survived those days.

Al-Daradji is prolific on the international film festival circuit, though this is far from being a one-man show. He has harnessed his passion and experience, and turned the building into a film school, teaching scores of young Iraqis the basics of filming, editing, writing - and everything in between - so that they too might tell the tales of Iraq.

The film school, which admits dozens of students every year, regardless of sect, has seen its students go on to study at the prestigious New York and London Film Schools. It has sent submissions to the Berlin Film Festival and even had a winner at the Tribeca Film Festival. Al-Daradji's 2010 film "Son of Babylon" even made the initial shortlist for the Academy Awards.

Al-Daradji's film school is helping to drive a cultural renaissance in a country that, over the past few decades, has been defined by violence and conflict. 
Mohammed Al-Daradji is at the forefront
of the Iraqi cinema revival [CC/Stephan Rohl]

It was in 2004, while shooting one of his first feature films on Baghdad's notorious Haifa Street, colloquially referred to as "Death Street", he was kidnapped at gunpoint by an Al-Qaeda cell. He escaped, but that was not the end of the danger - after checking into hospital, he was arrested by the US military, who accused him of shooting propaganda for Al-Qaeda.

And so the curtain was raised on a career which would see Al-Daradji become the region's most prolific film-maker. 

Baghdad, as charismatic a city as it may be, does not lend itself to shooting feature length films. "To live in Baghdad is an obstacle, there is no proper infrastructure. We have only 12 hours of electricity," Al-Daradji tells The New Arab.

"Imagine, I'm editing my film - and the power cuts. Sometimes you lose some of your editing." And that's before the dangers of militias and insurgents are taken into consideration. "In 2004 [while filming], we were shot at 10 times - by the Americans, by al-Qaeda, by the army. You didn't know who was shooting at you." 

Though he is critical of the US-led invasion, he acknowledges that it would be impossible to do what he does before 2003.

"Cinema under Saddam was just propaganda. We don't have any censorship now - at least not from the government, perhaps some from within society. I'm trying to put Iraq on the screen, before it was just the Ba'athi cinema."

He winces at the though of referring to the invasion as some sort of artistic liberation; phrasing it differently. "Since 2003, this movement has been powered by the pain of the conflict."

This was perhaps most evident in his 2010 picture, "Son of Babylon", a film which follows a boy and his grandmother who journey across Iraq searching for the boy's father, who failed to return home following the first Gulf War some 12 years earlier in 1991.

It is fiction, but for many Iraqis the theme is painfully authentic.

Film is not the only medium in which Iraqis are taking inspiration from the recent past's violence to produce world-class art. Ahmed Saadwi became the first Iraqi to win the Arab world's most prestigious literature prize - the International Prize for Arabic Fiction - in 2014, an award associated with the Man Booker.

His book, Frankenstein in Baghdad, is the the surrealist tale of a lowly scavenger on the street of the capital in 2005 who collects body parts from various bomb sites around the city and stitches them together to form the city's very own monster.

It is set to be released in English early next year, and critics have very high expectations for it, both in Europe and the US.
Al-Daradji's 2013 offering, In the sands of Babylon, was
described as 'a powerfully strident docu-drama' by
Variety magazine [Gareth Browne]

Though Al-Daradji clearly tries to harness a whole nation's suffering in his work, it is also immensely personal; his name has appeared on al-Qaeda's infamous target lists on more than one occasion. The failed suicide bomber in "The Journey" is based on a young woman he interviewed in a prison outside Baghdad. "She was beautiful, and I saw the humanity in her eyes." Many of his films' characters are based on people he has met.

Al-Daradji's commitment to free expression, and his desire "to take Iraq culture to the world" has certainly made him unpopular in some circles. He is a frequent critic of the Ministry of Culture, and of the government in general. In July 2016, at a rally he publicly accused the culture minister of corruption. He has four lawsuits pending against various public departments - for everything from unpaid royalties to unauthorised broadcasts of his films.

He also sits on a civil committee that organises anti-corruption protests every Friday in Baghdad, an issue he insists is at the root of Iraq's problems. When the Islamic State group surged in 2014, this industry, still very much in its infancy, could easily have ground to a halt.

"Much of our funding was redirected to humanitarian issues, and understandably so," he said. But the film school stayed open, and his students managed to produce several feature length films that year. 

It's clear Al-Daradji sees himself as much more than a film-maker, his films are a medium to attack some of the gravest problems affecting Iraq - particularly those most affecting the country's youth:

"Young people aren't really interested in religion, nor politics, but they have no options or prospects. I just try to offer some of them another way."

With the recapture of Mosul from IS now imminent, can Al-Daradji see himself working in that city anytime soon?

"Of course," he asserts. "Our problem is not IS. It is corruption and culture. If the minister of education, and minister of culture did their jobs properly we wouldn't have IS."

Gareth Browne is a freelance reporter based in Erbil. He has been reporting from the front lines in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group and recently visited Baghdad to study the legacy of the US-led invasion. 

Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth