After dark years lights coming back on for Iraqi cinema

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The din of power generators, tangle of jerry-rigged electric wiring and hassle of security checkpoints are all part of the movie business in Iraq, not to mention the lack of studio space and dearth of experienced crews.

But actors like Sadiq Abbas are just happy to get back to work.

“The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step,” Abbas said on the set of a short film shot recently in Baghdad. “Let’s take this as the first step for Iraqi cinema.”

War and international sanctions have left most of Iraq’s infrastructure and industry - including the movie industry - in shambles.

Government funding would have provided the jumpstart the industry needed but it has not been a government priority; the last full length feature financed by the state was in 1990. Independent film producers have struggled on their own.

That may be changing.

Nine months after the last U.S. troops left, Iraq’s oil industry is pumping at the highest in decades thanks to multi-billion contracts with foreign companies. Everyday life is showing signs of becoming more stable, and the government says it can now look again to funding the arts.

The ministry of culture has put up $4.7 million through to next year, enough to fund 21 movies ranging from full-length features to shorts and documentaries, touching on subjects as sensitive as Shiite and Sunni friendships riven by sectarian rivalries and the issue of family honor.

“Hopefully we can pull this off, because in Iraqi cinema history we never produced four films in one year,” said Ismail al-Jubouri, the deputy head of cinema and theater department at the ministry of culture.

A long history

Iraqi cinema dates back 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 produced only two feature-length films in the next decade along with a handful of documentaries.

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.

The first technicolor film was produced in this period, “The Head,” directed by Faisal al-Yassiri, who is one of those to have benefited from the government's latest funding.

Iraqi civil servant Mohammed Mahdi, 40, said his mother recalls going to the cinema to watch mainly Egyptian romances with their father, leaving the children with their grandmother.

“It was a romantic thing for them to go to the cinema,” Mahdi said, adding with a laugh that his father always fell asleep in the middle.

Their dates stopped with the advent of the war, as his father was in the military, Mahdi said.

“My mother always regretted the dying of Iraqi cinema.”

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 the infrastructure of the industry deteriorated. Laboratories and cameras fell into disrepair and cinemas were shuttered.

Independent film production houses tried to pick up the pieces, 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.

But the return of government funding means a new start for many local directors, even if the amounts are small by international standards.

Under the government program, funding for full-length movies can reach as high as 1.25 billion dinars ($1.07 million) while a short film like “A Man’s Tear,” which featured actor Abbas in one of the lead roles, can receive up to 74 million dinars.
Only 40 million dinars was allocated to the film industry from 2004 to 2012, said Qasim Mohammed Salman, the head of the ministry’s cinema department and executive producer of the 21 films.

The government’s backing is appreciated, said Saad Abdullah, production manager of “A Man’s Tear,” in which two brothers, one who stayed in Iraq and one who went abroad and came back wealthy, become estranged over who will care for their mother.

“I feel they want to support us. They have only given us a little but we will take what we can get,” Abdullah said.

The big picture

Not everyone is impressed, however.

Kasim Abid, who came back to Iraq after 2003 to teach film production, says the funding initiative is more about scoring political points than promoting local filmmakers.

“It is for political propaganda, not for culture,” Abid said.

The government’s efforts needed to be part of a coordinated, sustained plan across all the arts, agreed Mufid al-Jazairi, the chairman of the independent Iraqi Organization to Support Culture.

“At a time when the private sector is weak, only the government can play that role,” Jazairi said. “We need support in all cultural fields ... a base to ignite productivity that can grow over time.”

Many filmmakers, artists, musicians and performers also say they continue to feel the constraints of religious conservatism in the new Iraq, with Islamist parties and militias trying to impose their radical view of Islam on the arts.

And even if the film industry is getting a shot in the arm, venues for showing movies are still scarce. While security is much improved, many people remain wary of public gatherings.

Salman said of 82 cinemas that used to be open in Iraq, most of them in Baghdad, no more than five cinemas remain.

Small private cinemas operate in some social clubs. One local director regularly uses an inflatable screen to give outdoor screenings of his productions in Baghdad.

But many filmmakers are hopeful Iraqis will eventually come back to the cinemas.

“It’s the audience in the end who decides. They are the consumers and they are the ones who bring the money to the cinema by buying tickets,” said Raad Mshatat, the director of “The Silence of the Shepherd,” a full-length film.

“I have high hopes Iraqi cinema will come back to life.”

($1 = 1163.0000 Iraqi dinars)