Iraqi cinema scored a notable first at this month’s Thessaloniki International Film Festival in Greece, with one film up for an award and a retrospective of the young director Mohamed Al-Daradji.
But although Ebrahim Saeedi’s "Mandoo" (Tired) did not win, both he and Daradji showed that independent Iraqi cinema — whose history dates back more than a century yet for years was a propaganda tool of Saddam Hussein’s regime — has made a comeback.
"From 2005 to 2008, no films at all were produced in Iraq because of sectarian violence but things are changing," Daradji, whose film "Son of Babylon" was shot in Iraq and produced in Europe and the Middle East, told AFP.
The critically acclaimed movie follows an old Kurdish peasant woman and her unruly 12-year-old grandson Ahmed in the south of the country three weeks after the fall of Saddam.
The pair are searching for Ahmed’s father, who was a soldier in the Iraqi army during the first Gulf War in 1991 and never came home.
The film, which is Iraq’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film in next year’s Oscars, was well-received at a screening in Baghdad in May and has since won a clutch of awards at international film festivals including Berlin, Cairo and Edinburgh.
The US premiere at the Sundance Film Festival was sold out.
"After the screening, 10 American women came up to me and some of them were crying. Their sons were in Iraq. They had never thought that Iraqi mothers could be in the same situation," Daradji recalled.
Shooting, however, was hard. In all, the film took four years to make and the 32-year-old admitted that the battle against daily violence and attempts at censorship made him question the wisdom of continuing.
One scene showing a rickety old bus crossing one of Baghdad’s bridges lasts only a few seconds but took a month to shoot.
"Filming in Baghdad is not easy," he said, recalling the bus scene as a "nightmare."
"There is no lab to process on site, we had to send everything in the UK. Twenty times, I said, ‘Enough, I am leaving’."
In addition, both the Iraqi government and the authorities in the autonomous Kurdish north asked for changes to be made.
Iraqi officials suggested the grandmother should be an Arab not a Kurd while the Kurds thought her name — Um Ibrahim (mother of Abraham) — was too Arabic, he recalled with a smile.
Daradji, who was recently named Middle East Filmmaker of the Year by the US show business trade magazine Variety, refused — and with it, offers of official funding.
Now he aims to reopen some of 275 movie theaters destroyed by the war and promote home-grown filmmaking that was brought to a halt by years of international sanctions and state control.
"Between 2008 and 2010, three to four films a year were produced in Baghdad and in the south of the country (and) roughly one or two in the north," he said.
"We don’t have a film industry in Iraq, there are no proper theaters… We created an independent film center in Baghdad and we try to do some education. We have an outdoor cinema, we go around villages and cities to show movies."
In all, four of his films were shown to packed houses in Thessaloniki, including "Iraq, War, Love, God and Madness," a documentary showing the difficulties in filming his first feature "Ahlaam" (Dreams) in Baghdad.
It shows the daily struggle to film in an occupied city as violence raged after the US invasion in 2003, the young filmmaker’s doubts and extraordinary energy in the face of bombings, interrogations and even the arrest of some of his crew.
The inclusion of Kurdish director Saeedi’s "Mandoo" in the official competition in Thessaloniki was a first for Iraqi cinema.
The film depicts a displaced Iranian Kurdish family who want to take their sick father from Iraq to his homeland, Iran, to live out his final days.
The action is shown from the old man’s restricted perspective and takes place mainly in the family’s van, whose windows act as multiple screens showing the brutality and madness of daily life after the fall of Saddam.
Through them are seen the smoldering wrecks of recently exploded car bombs, minefields and screaming sirens.
Saeedi told AFP that he saw a connection between the road movie genre and the Kurdish people, who were "always on the move" and in exile.
The international success of Iranian Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi’s "No One Knows about Persian Cats," which won the special jury prize at Cannes in 2009, has also sparked an interest in cinema among Kurds, said Saeedi.
Two to three feature films are made in the region every year and there are nearly two dozen film-makers, who now have more freedom to explore their own identity and past.
"After 2003, after Saddam’s demise, Kurdish people started to express themselves through cinema, to express the sufferings of the past," Saeedi said.