As Baghdad writhed with violence in 2006, Emad Ali set out to make a film about the iconic Shabandar Cafe. But he turned the camera on himself after the teahouse was bombed, a deadly mortar killed his wife and a gunman shot him three times.
Despite the ordeals, he finished "A candle for the Shabandar Cafe," screening it for the first time in Iraq at this month’s Documentary Film Festival in Baghdad, organized by the capital’s struggling, non-governmental Independent Film and Television College to showcase student films made between 2004 and this year.
The films are without a common theme: A young woman arrives in violence-torn Baghdad to finish college; a gentle surgeon with literary talents struggles at an understaffed hospital; academic moonlights as a barber; a singer refuses to quit music despite threats by Islamists.
But through the lives of ordinary people, the 16 documentaries capture all the plagues visited on Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein: a vicious Al-Qaeda insurgency; abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers; sectarian violence that killed tens of thousands; and ethnic divisions that turned friends into enemies.
"We wanted to show what it feels like to be an Iraqi, to capture a portion of Iraq’s ongoing history," said Kasim Abid, 60, who returned from Britain in 2003 and began the tuition-free college the year after with fellow Iraqi and filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi.
In "Baghdad Days," Hiba Bassem returns from the family home in northern Kirkuk to finish college in 2004.
It is a time of chaos: US troops and tanks patrol the streets, electricity is as scarce as a good night’s sleep in the stifling heat, and Al-Qaeda is targeting Americans and "collaborators."
Her year-long ordeals hit a low when Ali, a cousin in his 20s who works as a translator for the Americans, finds a booby-trapped phone charger left for him in the garden. It rips off his left hand, mutilates the right and leaves him blinded.
Bassem recalls a night with Ali and his sisters, staying up until 4:00 am in talk and banter: "We chatted about our hopes, and Ali said: ‘I’m a little afraid because of my work, but if I can make some money I’ll go abroad to study painting, which I always dreamt of doing’."
But when she sees the stump that was his hand resting on the dining table, she knows the bomb that severed Ali’s limb also sundered his dreams.
Brewing sectarian and ethnic divisions were coming to a boil, especially in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Kirkuk.
Like the countless displaced across Iraq, her Arab family which had lived for decades in a Sunni Kurdish neighborhood flees Kirkuk one night and joins her in Baghdad, after threats on other Arab families.
Bassem films a scene from a play in which she takes part: an actor portraying a US soldier shoves her into a room and slaps her across the face, mirroring the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of 2004, when pictures of US troops torturing and abusing Iraqi prisoners made international headlines.
In March 2007, a suicide bombing killed more than 30 people and wounded at least 60 in Baghdad’s renowned Mutannabi street, destroying the centenarian Shabandar Cafe.
Before the attack, Emad Ali had finished filming faded pictures of old Baghdad on the cafe walls, an ancient radio on the mantle and a withered manager tapping out customers’ bills on a clunky typewriter.
He stopped filming after his wife and father died in a mortar attack on their home. Violence was rampant and often random when he resumed after several months, and he was returning from filming one day when a gunman shot him in the chest, back and leg.
Ali turned the camera on himself, capturing just another victim of another day in Baghdad.
"A creative person dies when he stops creating, that’s why I continued," a healed Ali said on the sidelines of the two-day film festival.
There is no recorded history between 2007, when Abid had to pack up and leave temporarily because things became too risky, and 2010, when the school reopened, and had the funds to run classes.
"When we started in 2004 we had no money, nothing at all," said Abid, joking that he is the cleaner and manager of the school, housed in a modest two-room flat.
Then came a $22,000 grant from California-based NGO Internews, and the students’ cameras began to roll. Since then, most of the funding has come from charities and independent foundations in Europe, the United States and Arab countries. "We are always struggling for money," Abid said.
Violence in Iraq now has dropped, although kidnappings and bombings still happen nearly every day. American forces have retreated to their bases, largely invisible on the streets, ahead of a pullout at year’s end.
The films made in 2010 and early this year are about people gluing back broken lives.
In "Na’eem the barber," a professor who moonlights as a men’s hairdresser returns home to his war-wrecked Baghdad neighborhood.
"The area was empty, shops were closed and the owners had given me the keys, so I rented the shop next door and gave it to my wife to run as a flower shop, to bring some life back to the area," Na’eem says.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of the invasion has been freedom of expression, non-existent under Saddam. But there are still constraints on free speech and even artistic expression, especially in the conservative Shiite south.
Majid, a young and talented folk singer, struggles in the southern city of Nassiriyah against Islamists who consider art a sin.
Once, before a concert, armed men beat up the musicians and wrecked their instruments, Majid recalls. To repair his stringed instrument Majid goes to an artisan, who works in secret out of fear.
"I might get killed but this (music) is my life," Majid says, vowing to continue his art in this year’s "Sing your song."
Many of the student films have been screened at festivals around the world, picking up top awards.
"I think that for all of us Iraqis who are trying to make things — films, books, theatre, whatever — what we do is perhaps an unconscious form of resistance against the destruction and fragmentation all around us," said Pachachi, the partner in the film school, who like Abid is an internationally-known and award-winning documentary filmmaker.
"If we didn’t do this what would we do? Sit and watch the TV and weep?"