BAGHDAD (AFP) ― A journalist kidnapped by extremists may be a well-trodden scenario, but for one young filmmaker in Baghdad, it provided fodder for a nascent genre in Iraqi film: the patriotic action flick.
“Attention” by Ibrahim al-Khazali, named Best Iraqi Production at this month’s Baghdad International Film Festival, was initially conceived in 2006, at the height of the country’s brutal insurgency and sectarian war.
At the time, Khazali’s idea was dismissed by his teachers at the Institute of Fine Arts because it would require a “Hollywood budget.”
But the 29-year-old, inspired by the real-life kidnap and assassination of a journalist friend of his, raised the money to finance the project ― all $15,000.
Even after he had enough funds, other hurdles remained. Chief among them: actually filming the action scenes.
One of the scenes features a hostage, the wife of an army captain, rescued by a commando team which intervenes with three military helicopters, eight armored cars and 45 Iraqi soldiers.
Khazali pinned hopes on his contacts and experience in presenting a weekly television program called “The Guardians of Iraq” on state broadcaster Iraqiya focused on the military and its successes.
But even this was not enough for the access necessary to borrow the military equipment he needed.
His big break came in a chance encounter with then-defense minister Abdul Qader Obeidi, who was impressed by the film’s patriotic slant.
“I told him we would be serving Iraq, and I asked him to also do a service to Iraq,” Khazali recalled, insisting he had not made a film under the direction of the military nor received financial support from the armed forces.
“The military carries a heavy burden,” he said. “I have seen the bodies of soldiers and their families,” he said, seated in the capital’s National Theatre where the festival was held.
“Without them, we would not be sitting here.”
Following three decades marked by three wars ― from 1980-1988 with Iran, Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 2003 US-led invasion ― and 13 years of UN sanctions, Iraq is still struggling to establish a stable state.
Cinema-going, like most other leisure pursuits, came to a virtual standstill in Baghdad in the years after the invasion, as families chose to stay at home and many movie theatres were burned down during the sectarian war.
The Iraqi film industry dates back to the 1940s and was at its most popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when going to the cinema was a weekly family event.
However, the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait and the economic sanctions that followed saw cinemas go into decline.
Unsurprisingly, the prolonged violence was a persistent theme during the October 3-10 film festival, the third since 2003, during which 40 Iraqi films, ranging from shorts to feature films and documentaries, were shown.
Another legacy of the unrest is the country no longer has a major framework to provide funding and support for aspiring filmmakers ― the festival itself had to be put together on a shoestring budget.
Despite its action-packed scenes and violence, Khazali’s film ended on a hopeful note ― a suicide bomber disarms himself and abandons his explosives-packed car to help a young woman before the closing credits roll.
It was a message to Iraq’s “lost youth,” tempted by extremism, Khazali said.
One of the film festival’s international judges, Abdelaziz Belrhali from Morocco, said also he hoped for a “new vision” to emerge in Iraqi cinema, apart from tales of violence.
“Iraqi cinema is based around the documentary film that talks about war,” he said. “We are flooded with this vision, we want young directors to change that, and to produce innovative creations for a new life of peace and tolerance.”
“There are plenty of stories to tell in Iraq.”