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After war, Iraqis tell their tales through films

Sunday April 22, 2012 03:18:41 PM, Malavika Vettath, IANS

Dubai: After Saddam Hussein's long, oppressive rule and the subsequent US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that ended only last year, Iraqi and Kurdish filmmakers seem to be in a hurry to make films -- on poison gas attacks on Kurdish villages, mass graves, Iraqi bloggers and even love stories.

"Halabja - The Lost Children" begins with a young man, Ali, visiting the cemetery. He stands in front of a gravestone and says: "Until two months ago, this was my grave."

The documentary by Kurdish Syrian filmmaker Akram Hidou highlights the agony of people after Saddam's poison gas attack in 1988 on Halabja, the Kurdish city near the border with Iran. Nearly 5,000 people lost their lives, while hundreds of children went missing.

Twenty-one years after the attack, Ali returns looking for his lost family. And five families in the Kurdish city hope against hope that Ali is their missing child.

"When I met Ali, I thought no one will be better than him and his family to tell the story," Hidou said in Arabic about his film, which fetched him the Best Director's award in the Official Gulf Feature Competition of the Fifth Gulf Film Festival this week.

The film goes into the homes of people who have lost entire families. "Before March 16, 1988, Halabja was a city of poets but after that bodies lay strewn in front of every house," a man who lost all his children says in the film.

Iraq's film history began in the 1940s, filmmaker Ja'afar Abd Al-Hamid told IANS in an interview. But he adds it's obviously not been a prolific industry.

"It has made may be 100 films in 40 years, something India might produce in a month," says Ja'afar, whose film "Mesocafe" was screened at the Gulf Film Festival.

"There was a healthy movie-going culture...but political interference made it difficult. Also, with the international sanctions, Iraq wasn't allowed to import film stock. This just killed the industry. Now I think there is just one cinema hall in Baghdad," explains the director, who calls himself a Satyajit Ray fan.

"Now there is a revival," he adds.

Ja'afar's "Mesocafe" revolves around Yusuf, an underground Iraqi blogger who travels to London to highlight the consequences of UN sanctions on Iraq. And in London, the film focusses on the Iraqi diaspora.

"My film captures how for expats, Iraq is a place in their highlights the disconnect between the diaspora and people in Iraq," Ja'afer, who hasn't gone back to Iraq in 26 years, told IANS.

Another horror tale from Iraq is about the Anfal genocide campaign where 182,000 Kurds were buried in mass graves by commanders of Saddam's Baath Party. But "I Am A White Mercenary" by Taha Karimi tells the story through the eyes of Saeid Jaf, a mercenary commander on trial for war crimes. He is hailed as the Oscar Schindler of Kurds for saving hundreds by preventing their arrest and killing.

Jaf collects testimonies of people he saved. And one by one they say they "are ready to defend Saeid Jaf".

Yet another Iraqi documentary is "In My Mother's Arms" about the orphans of Iraq's war and one man's struggle to run a private orphanage comprising 32 children scarred by the violence around them.

Iraq has seen phases of never-ending violence and filmmakers like Karimi believe this has become a part of any story they want to tell. "Iraqi people are very tired and injured, they want peace now," Karimi told reporters.

Adds Ja'afer: "It is going to be hard for Iraqi filmmakers to get out from this cloud of chaos...The next generation of filmmakers might focus on other aspects."

But there are already stories of love on celluloid like "Red Heart" by Kurdish filmmaker Halkawt Mustafa. It's a stirring drama about two teenagers who fight to be together in a land where choosing one's spouse is an unknown freedom.

More than anything else, the director is overjoyed that 18 films, including short ones, from Iraq were screened at the festival.

"I'm very happy...for me, it is first time to see many Iraqi movies," Mustafa says.

(Malavika Vettath can be contacted at






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