Iraqi filmmakers talk about their award-winning childhood-inspired movies
A young amputee is looking at a girl on the other side of the schoolyard. He attempts to go up to her but his wheel chair gets trapped in a small ditch in the ground. He falls off the chair, but gets back up and rides away with a little Barcelona FC flag waiving off the right handle. He plays football with his friends, and just as the team is about to play against the girls’ team, he bets his prized football posters that the girls will win and perches himself along the wall to watch the game. He is trying to win the affection of his crush, the girl team’s goalie.
This is the premise of Children of God, a 10-minute short film by young Iraqi filmmaker Ahmed Yaseen and winner of a special mention in the Muhr Arab Short category and the FIPRESCI Award for best Arab Short Film at the 2013 Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) earlier this month.
Yaseen was one of a group of 19 emerging filmmakers to take part in a yearlong filmmaking workshop organized by Iraqi-run, UK-based Human Film and the Independent Iraqi Film Center lead by Mohamad AlDaradj, acclaimed director of the award winning 2010 film Son of Babylon. It brought together young writers, editors and directors with children living in a Baghdad orphanage. The result of the workshop was six short beautiful, empathetic and heart felt films; four of which premiered at DIFF, two of which already had their screenings in London and Berlin.
The workshop focused on how to create an idea and cultivating that into film. “We had a few rules that the filmmakers had to work within. Among them are: little dialogue, no flashback, no slow motion, no internal dialogue, static camera positioning, all the stories must be about children between ages 1 - 15 years, the films must not go over 15 minutes and the cast would be from the orphanage that we were working with,” explains AlDaradji who also conceptualized the program. Making the filmmakers’ learning curve even steeper, AlDaradji insisted that they use 35mm cameras. This high cost media that requires particular shooting conditions demands stringent decisions to be made for each shot taken.
“Most of the filming took place around Rashid Street near the Republic Bridge. It was the day when the American forces withdrew so you saw it exactly as I saw it in Baghdad,” explains Yahya AlAllaq, director of War Canister, a story of a deaf boy who is forced to travel far away in order to find fuel for his family.
Shooting on location was clearly not an easy feat in conditions of occupation and violence where Al Qaeda and other militant factions run the place. But the perseverance shows in the results. The production quality was of high standard, children with beginner acting skills came across like trained actors and the story lines were full of heart and resilience offering snapshots of children’s situations: those who have lost parents, limbs and homes, but also embody strength and spirit.
The youngest in the group, Medoo Ali, directed the only animated film, Children of War. A simplistic stick figure animation, it presents one child’s impression of the war he is surrounded by. US soldiers sleeping in an airplane, mosques getting bombed, the sounds of sirens and explosions: American soldiers are positioned as the perpetrators in this child’s view. The animated scenes are intermitted with the young boy making the drawings, which get more violent as the film continues with the explosions getting bigger and bloodier. But sadness surfaces as we see old family photos and empty bullet canisters, the final shot leaving us with an image of the gate of an orphanage with a sign reading 'Children of War'.
The collection of films, presented at DIFF as ‘Iraq Legacy’, is a reference to the future of Iraq, with children placed at the very core. AlDaradji’s 2011 documentary In My Mother’s Arms deals with the situation of orphans in Iraq and brought him closer to the orphanage.
“We were able to get to know Hisham AlThahab, the director of the home, and figured out how to be able to work with the orphans. 32 children now live in the orphanage,” he says. The website of Human Film’s, the company that produces AlDardji’s film, explains the plight of children who lost their families in war and occupation as an ongoing appeal, noting that there are currently 800,000 children living without their parents, some of whom face abuse in state-run orphanages in a country where child protection laws don’t exist.
“I felt childhood was an important subject for the young filmmakers to cover. Much like my students are the future of the Iraqi film industry, children are the future of Iraq in its entirety,” AlDaradji says. “I wanted the films to show the struggles that children have to overcome in Iraq. Children in Iraq face many difficulties in the wake of war and terrible violence. The results have a devastating impact on children including poverty, disability, disease and being left without any family.”
As an emerging filmmaker with a feature film in the pipeline, AlAllaq added, “Our role is to follow the human stories and the situation that is happening in Iraq, we are the voice of Iraq.”
But the involvement of all parties goes a long way. Al Daradji explains, “The children involved in the workshop have benefited from a sense of pride in knowing that they are an integral part of the regeneration of the Iraqi film industry and that their stories and the stories of thousands more like them are being told on a global scale.”
By Sheyma Buali.