Our River… Our Sky: Maysoon Pachachi on creating cinema against the odds
Twenty years after the US invasion of Iraq, much has been said about the atrocities of the war. Hundreds of thousands dead, mosques decimated – but what of ordinary citizens at that time?
It’s a question Iraqi director Maysoon Pachachi answers in Our River… Our Sky, a new film that follows a novelist and her neighbours in 2006 Baghdad as they face daily violence and nightly curfews, but most importantly still dare to live.
"That’s how I think of Iraq, as a broken mirror – together but fractured"
Film was always a draw for Maysoon, who loved going to the cinema as a child. “The first film I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz, I was terrified – my mum had to take me out,” she remembers.
“I didn’t know much about the industry, but I came across a book called Film: A Montage of Theories during my first year at university in Pennsylvania. It had interviews with directors like Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard, and after reading it I thought, ‘this is what I want to do.’”
With a diplomat for a father, Maysoon moved between Egypt, America and England as well as Iraq, piquing her curiosity about other people’s stories.
“My grandparents had a nice house by the river with this paradise of a garden, but on the other side, there were young boys working on boats with their bare feet in the mud. I remember thinking ‘These people have a very different life than me, but we’re all living in the same country.’ That really affected me.”
It’s a sentiment Maysoon carried through her career, using her curiosity to keep exploring the world.
“Making documentaries, you’re always listening and intuiting what is going on below the surface. These aren’t characters you’ve created, they’re real people, and you plunge into situations you know nothing about. If you’re going to get anywhere, you have to listen and not think that you have the full range of something.”
In 2004, Maysoon co-founded the Independent Film & Television College in Baghdad with Iraqi filmmaker Kasim Abid, providing access to kit and filmmaking techniques to students who wanted to create against the odds.
“There was a tremendous amount of adversity – we called it a college, but we were working in a flat basically while bombs were going off. We were very resourceful. The students would plan their documentaries and within minutes something would happen and they’d need to reimagine.”
Maysoon remembers how hard it was to get her students to college safely, especially the women, but persevered, believing in the power of cinema.
“Kasim and I thought ‘We’re not anything useful like engineers or doctors, but we know how to make films.’ We’d taught Palestinian students in the past, who had finally been able to put their stories on screen. Iraqi students had never had a chance to do that. Sanctions meant the students weren’t getting the equipment they needed, and the people teaching them had never made films. It was important for Iraqis to have that voice.”
Middle Eastern directors don’t have to make films about their area, but the Gulf War in the ‘90s was a turning point for Maysoon. She remembers “all the Iraqis in London'' being glued to their TVs, watching bombs rain down on bridges, roads and buildings.
“You never saw one ordinary Iraqi person speak. It was as if the whole country was wiped off the face of the earth, and I just thought, ‘This makes it much easier to wage war because people don’t have to think of people like me being there.’ We’re abstracted out of the picture, we’re not even victims.”
During this time, Maysoon entered a state of shock where she struggled to remember simple words in English, her name or her age. But looking to the Iraqis in London, many of whom were in exile because they were against the regime, Maysoon made her first film for Channel 4.
“I had to prove I wasn’t a spy, but after that, the floodgates opened. They hadn’t been able to speak for 30 years, so we filmed a lot of interviews with archive footage from the beginning of the state. It was like trying to put together something that was in pieces, like a jigsaw or tapestry. That’s how I think of Iraq, as a broken mirror – together but fractured.”
Maysoon continued to make documentaries in Gaza, Iran and Egypt but had wanted to make a narrative feature film for a while.
“I thought to myself, I’m not going to make another film trundling around and asking people things,” she said. It was during a project in 2006, where Maysoon shot a group of Iraqi women who came together to share their experiences through photography, that Maysoon met Irada Al-Jubori, who eventually became her co-writer on Our River… Our Sky.
As a writer of fiction, Irada joined Maysoon in searching for stories to build a script. London-based Maysoon couldn’t travel to Baghdad at the time to meet Irada, so the duo met in Beirut and Amman to write a surprisingly funny film.
Our River… Our Sky depicts the humanity of war, particularly in one scene on a bus stopped by militia.
“Iraq became a joke factory in those days – some of the dialogue you hear in that scene actually happened. You had this horrible stuff going on, but also this alchemy that turned it into a joke. You see a lot of that in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, and that’s what I was interested in, not the blood on the streets or the perpetrators of the violence, but how people were living through this. What was it that got them out of the door in the morning to do what they needed to do? People – mostly women – had to sustain life somehow. Kids had to go to school, people had to be fed.”
Despite death and destruction, the jokes kept coming, which Maysoon sees as not just resilience, but resistance to surrounding damage: “You’re making in the face of unmaking.”
When asked if Maysoon’s own work is a form of resistance, the answer is a resounding “yes. I can see people might think ‘All this is going on and you’re making a film, really?’ But you need to, otherwise, you just sink. Especially from war zones, you get news reports of people being killed, but not who they were.”
“With this film, people have been able to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes, which is so important. You know the characters intimately. There isn’t a central lead, which again is like the shattered mirror – in Persian miniatures, when you have a picture of a market, in every corner another small story is being enacted which makes a collective story.”
Isabella Silvers is a multi-award-winning editor and journalist, having written for Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, Refinery 29 and more. She also writes a weekly newsletter on mixed-race identity, titled Mixed Messages
Follow her on Twitter: @izzymks