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Iraqi man seeks to preserve cinematic history through private collection

Published: Updated:

A room in Iraqi film fan Karim Kadhim's house is dedicated to artifacts from the cinema industry.

The room is decorated with film posters, some dating back to the 1950's -- a time the Iraqi government's cinema department was established.

Kadhim used to work in a Basra cinema selling sweets, but he now spends his time looking through his collection, which includes old posters and film reels, and lamenting about the status of the cinema industry in Iraq.

“These magazines and the posters of the artists, even the tapes from the cinema, I have collected them since the monarchy days in the 1950s during the time of the King Faisal II, may God have mercy on him.

This hobby continued with me since I was a student , buying magazines to collect pictures (of movie stars) but I stopped collecting posters and pictures in 1980s when the war started and when I got married, I keep them as heritage,” said Kadhim.

The country has a long cinematic history, with films being produced in Iraq and feature-length films as well as documentaries being made.

But during the 24-year rule of Saddam Hussein from 1979, the industry mainly served as a propaganda tool for his Baathist party, which also commissioned art, theatre and music.

Films focused mainly on the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, portraying Iraq as the victor in the conflict, which ended in a stalemate and ceasefire. The film “The Long Days” told Saddam's life story.

The heyday of the industry came in the 1970s, when the government established its first theatre, allocated more funds for full-length movies and attracted Arab filmmakers to help.

But after the U.S.-led coalition invaded in 2003 and toppled Saddam, movie archives and equipment were looted, and later sectarian violence drained the country of artistic talent.

Film production slowed to a crawl and industry infrastructure deteriorated. Laboratories and cameras fell into disrepair and cinemas were shuttered.

Only last year the Iraqi government announced that it would inject money into the industry. But a lot more work needs to be done in a country where the din of power generators, tangle of jerry-rigged electric wiring and hassle of security checkpoints are all part of the movie business, not to mention the lack of studio space and deaths of experienced crews.

Kadhim says he despairs when he sees how cinema houses have fallen into disrepair or have been turned into shops, and that nobody seems to care about the country's history.

“When I go to the city centre of Ashar now and walk by the al-Rasheed cinema or the Shatt al-Arab cinema which has now been turned into a market, I feel it's a shame when I look at the buildings, there's no interest in the heritage. In other countries like the United Kingdom, U.S., France and even in Egypt, an Arab country, the cinema houses remain as they are, they haven't been changed or destroyed. But when I am looking at the Shatt al-Arab or the Rasheed (cinemas) they've been turned into markets and malls. I can't even look at them now, I suffer if I look at them,” he said.

Most of the cinemas in Iraq have closed down and the recent wave of bombings in the country has only added to people's fear of gathering in public places.

So, it's in Kadhim's home where he can reflect on the cinema that once was in Iraq, and through his collection he hopes to preserve just a small part of that industry.