Iraqi filmmaker looks to British occupation for new movie

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A group of British soldiers aim their guns at Iraqis, as a cameraman hovers above capturing the scene.

This is the set of a new film being filmed in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

‘Action’ shouts the film’s director Amer Alwan and the actors get to work.

Alwan and his crew including a French Director of Photography and a camera operator are shooting “Najem, the Grocerman”, a movie examining Iraq under the British occupation.

The film tells the story of Najem, an Iraqi man from the holy Iraqi city of Najaf, who led a popular uprising against the British occupation in 1918 and who was eventually condemned to death for killing a British officer.

The ministry of culture has put up 4.7 million U.S. dollars through to next year, enough to fund 21 movies ranging from full-length features to shorts and documentaries, touching on subjects as sensitive as Shi’ite and Sunni relations and issues to do with family honor.

Speaking on the set, Alwan welcomed the investment boost in Iraq’s film industry, “Director of photography is French and his assistant too and this means that a French technical crew and European actors are working with Iraqi technical teams, actors and artists and exchanging expertise. Because the Iraqi cinema production had been in a deep sleep for a long time and now is the first move towards reviving the Iraqi cinema. It is a blessed move and it is an indication of good-will and a healthy status of the country,” said Alwan.

The Iraqi film industry has withered away in recent years, and it became increasingly impossible to get hold of equipment needed to produce a film.

Over the years the film industry fell into ruin and most of the movie archives and equipment were looted after the U.S.-led coalition invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.

“The most important thing for cinema is a good scenario. There must be a good script, which talks about the problems of the society and real stories. Thus, the most important thing is the scriptwriter. Thus, the most important thing is the scenario and then, as you know, comes techniques and production. So, the second important thing is production, which provides facilities for the Iraqi artist and the Iraqi technician and the Iraqi innovative people,” added Iraqi born Alwan.

The film’s executive director Hadi Idrees said it isn’t only the government that is now has an interest in the industry, but the locals too.

“Before 2003 the Iraqi cinema was financed and mainly dedicated to a sole object, which is glorifying the then regime, but nowadays thank God, the government and people interested in cinema have started to pay attention to cinema. Funds were allocated to produce movies and we have now big budget movies,” said Idrees.

According to the head of the ministry’s cinema department only 40 million Dinars, the equivalent of more than 34 thousand U.S. dollars, was allocated to the film industry from 2004 to 2012.

Those working on this film say tight censorship under Saddam’s regime prevented movie-makers from dealing freely with any topics, noting that the main difference between making films now and then, is that now there is no taboo, whether it’s politics, religion or sex.

What makes this film stand out though is the cast, as a number of non-Iraqi’s are involved in its production.

“If there was more finance and there was the possibility to produce and to start Iraqi cinema that would be fabulous. I am sure there is no problem to find the money here,” said actor Scott Thrun.

Government funding would have provided the jump-start the industry needed but it has not been a government priority; the last full length feature financed by the state was in 1990, and many independent film producers have struggled to make the final cut on their own.

More than one year after the last U.S. troops left, Iraq’s oil industry is pumping at the highest in decades, thanks to multi-billion dollar contracts with foreign companies.

Everyday life appears to be showing signs of stability, and the government says it can now look again to funding the arts.

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