Rob Avila and Iraqi director Oday Rasheed discuss the genesis of inspiration against a backdrop of war, politics and filmmaking
Oday Rasheed is one of only a small handful of filmmakers working and producing in Iraq today. His first feature, Underexposure (2005), captured the immediate aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in a fictional documentary-style story about a Baghdad filmmaker trying to make sense of the tumult of this period. Soon after its debut, Rasheed left the growing sectarian violence in Baghdad for Berlin, where he immersed himself in film studies, gravitating to the works of Andrei Tarkovsky, among others, and eventually developed the script for his second feature, Qarantina. He returned to Baghdad in 2008 to make the film, which was completed in 2010.
Qarantina is one of ten awarding-winning films featured in the Global Lens 2012 series, premiering this January at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Oday was able to attend his Global Lens screening in New York as part of a short U.S. tour that includes multiple screenings at MoMA, and a presentation of the film at the Council on Foreign Relations on January 25th, and also at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service on January 30th.
Recently, during the premiere of Global Lens 2012 at MoMA, Rasheed sat down one Friday afternoon to talk with writer Rob Avila about his second feature and the dangers and possibilities for filmmakers in Iraq today. Also joining Rasheed were Santhosh Daniel, GFI Director of Programs and Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times Baghdad Bureau Chief and Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who wrote about Qarantina for the Times last spring, after meeting Oday in Baghdad.
ROBERT AVILA: Qarantina is your second feature. Can you describe the genesis of the film?
ODAY RASHEED: Someone I knew, not directly—I heard he’d become an assassin. And he had all the elements to be a normal man, not an assassin—a good family, a good father, a good mother.
So I really started to think about this character. I started to write notes, and follow what was going on [back home]. I lived in Germany for three years, so I was away from the sectarian violence. It gave me the distance that you need. I started from a character, actually, not from a story that I wanted to tell.
ROBERT AVILA: Was it difficult to make this film in Baghdad? It looks like you had at least some cooperation from local authorities. Were you making the film very much out in the open?ODAY RASHEED: Yeah. The thing is, with this film I decided something. I went to Baghdad with a script and $200 in my pocket, saying, ‘I will produce a film.’ Everybody was laughing at me, ‘how are you going to do this?’ [laughs] So the first thing I was thinking about was how to get some of the national capital [designated for cultural activities].
We have money over there. We have billions. But the corruption is like, I don’t know, the numbers are kind of terrifying. So I said to myself, ‘listen, you go there and you take what is by right’ [funds open to you]. . And this is what I did. I got half the budget from the Ministry of Culture—without letting them even touch the script, not even read it. I’m proud about this, because this is the first Iraqi film ever to be produced outside of censorship—with the government a partner on the production side.
ROBERT AVILA: How did you manage to get [the government] to back off any interference with the production?
ODAY RASHEED: By shouting that it’s a democratic age. That this is what we fought for. That most of the people who died, died for such a moment. You want a film? You want a vision? I will do it. Also, I had the cooperation of the head of the Ministry of Culture’s Department for Cinema and Theater. He used to be a professor at the fine arts academy. He was like, ‘Do whatever you want, I’m behind you.’ He’s still behind me. And also I think they trusted what they heard about me, about this director whose work is in the international festivals, this kind of thing. But it took about six months to convince them of everything. They couldn’t arrange the whole project and I said, ‘Just give me the money for the shoot and I will arrange the rest,’ and this is what I did.
SANTHOSH DANIEL: You mentioned the Department for Cinema and Theater. How active is that right now?
ODAY RASHEED: The thing is, it belongs to the Ministry of Culture. And the problem is actually with the Ministry of Culture itself, because they have 12,000 employees. They are spending 99% of their time and energy taking care of these employees—because most of them do nothing—rather than doing something to support culture. But still, we have from time to time plays, theater activity, not bad activity, but film-wise, this is the only thing they arranged to produce…
It’s the same political situation you can find in a small department, like a film department, where there’s one guy who controls everything and wants to retire with all this power in his hands without doing anything. It’s bureaucracy, you know? It’s the remains—I call them the “ruins of Saddam’s regime.” They’re still there. I have a lot of problems with them, but the media in Baghdad loves me, in a way. I attack them, when they need to be attacked, so it’s kind of a love-hate relationship.
ROBERT AVILA: Can you expand on the nature of your relationship to the Iraqi media?
ODAY RASHEED: What surprised me was, I have some friends who came to the film—they are really good journalists and critics—and two of them didn’t like the film. They said, ‘We didn’t like it, we expected something else.’ I told them, ‘Yeah, ok, this is your right.’ But what surprised me is that they didn’t write anything against the film. All the articles published in Baghdad were in support of the film. I met them later on in the coffee shop, and I asked why they didn’t write anything negative about the film, or what they really think about the film. They said, ‘Because we are supporting your whole [career], we didn’t want to distort that.’ I said, ‘But this is not fair. People need to know your opinion.’ They said, ‘Yeah, but not now.’ So this is their position, and I understand it.
ROBERT AVILA: This desire to support you, and by extension the rest of re-emerging Iraqi film culture is interesting, obviously of serious concern to some. What is the state of Iraqi film culture today?
ODAY RASHEED: Since 2003, there are two guys working on film production: Mohamed Al-Daradji and me. And we are partners on a project called the Iraqi Independent Film Center. We went to the same guy, the head of the Department of Cinema and Theater, and he had an old house, a beautiful spot, neglected for years. I said, ‘You don’t use this, give it to me, I want to make it into a center.’ He said, ‘Take it, but you do the renovation.’ So we did everything, and it’s functioning.
Now we have a workshop on 35mm for five young Iraqi filmmakers, most of who began as our assistants on the films that we made. We are producing five short films of theirs on 35mm, for them as directors and writers. Also, we have five camera operators, all under 22 years of age. This is all structured within this concept of the Iraqi Independent Film Center. Beyond this, there is nothing.
ROBERT AVILA: There’s no formal education in filmmaking?
ODAY RASHEED: No, the academy is horrible. The institute is horrible. And in 2013, Baghdad will be the international cultural capital [i.e., the Arab Capital of Culture, an initiative of the Arab League as part of UNESCO’s Cultural Capitals Program]. So there is money for films. But what the Ministry did was give it all to this Department of Cinema and Theater. I don’t know how they’re going to spend it. We’re talking about something like four million dollars.
NED PARKER: Do you think all the money will be spent on film or do you think some of it will disappear?
ODAY RASHEED: Definitely there will be corruption. No question about it. That’s usual. I’m talking about the rest of the money. What kind of film will they spend it on? What kind of directors? What kind of subjects?
NED PARKER: I think it was in the summer time, or maybe in May, there was this rumor of even shutting down the arts college, the music college, at Baghdad University by the Department of Higher Education. Do you remember hearing about that? And then they denied it? But I think it was true. I think they really wanted to, and then they just said it was a rumor.
That’s the kind of climate that you’re working in as an artist in Baghdad. Everything is so polarized. You can’t just be a free thinker or independent because the legacy, the ruins of Saddam, is there in terms of party.
*ROBERT AVILA: [to Ned] Can you explain how you first heard about and met Oday? What drew you professionally or personally to the activities and work of an Iraqi filmmaker?
*NED PARKER: I learned about Qarantina from a friend who had gone to its one-time screening in Baghdad at the city’s national theater last June. When I heard about the film’s subject, a hit man in Baghdad, I wondered what kind of film it could be. Assassinations are now a regular part of life in Baghdad. Not a day goes by one doesn’t hear on the news or from a friend about a magnetic bomb attached to someone’s car or a driver being shot dead in traffic. So when I heard there was an Iraqi film on the phenomenon of the hit man I wanted to see it. Both Oday and his wife, Furat, the film’s producer, are very dynamic people, fun and full of energy. When they talk about movies, a very real and infectious enthusiasm comes through. You feel you are around people who are literally trying to transform life into art.
ODAY RASHEED: [Ned] is one of the best journalists covering Baghdad. I showed the film in Baghdad and it was kind of a big buzz. He couldn’t come to the premiere, so he sent an Iraqi colleague. So we talked, and then he came, and he took a DVD of the film and wrote about it, and we became friends after that.
SANTHOSH DANIEL: You premiered the film in Baghdad.
ODAY RASHEED: Yes, for one day.
SANTHOSH DANIEL: I don’t mean to sound surprised—but I’m surprised.
ODAY RASHEED: All four films we showed in Iraq. Underexposure in 2005 we showed in the National Theater. Then Ahlaam [Dreams (2006)], from Mohamed Al-Daradji, was shown in the National Theater. Son of Babylon from Mohamed Al-Daradji was shown in one of the most beautiful film theaters still functioning in Baghdad. And then Qarantina in the National Theater.
ROBERT AVILA: What has been the reception of the film in Iraq?
ODAY RASHEED: First, everybody said or felt that this is an advanced step in the history of Iraqi cinema at the level of image and sound and technique. After this, people divided into two teams. The first team, which was actually the strongest team, said, ‘Yes, we have to support such a film because it shows the reality and helps us discuss our problems, not just forget about them.’ And the other team, they were saying, ‘No, this is too harsh, this is too tough to show such things now. We at least need a few years [before we] talk about these issues.’ We’re talking about 1000 mainly intellectuals came to see the film. So it’s kind of a weird premiere, because it’s not to the [general] public but it’s not completely to film people. It’s a weird mix.
ROBERT AVILA: It’s an elite audience.
ODAY RASHEED: Most of them. They were like journalists, artists, and professors. So these were the two teams. But there’s a third team, which is the smallest but the most powerful team, because they’re connected to the Islamic parties. They were against it adamantly, because I showed a Muslim man who prayed two times in the film and, in the end, he raped his daughter. For them, this is the red line. You don’t do this. I don’t want to show off here, but I’ve been threatened. They killed one of the actors in the film. Not because of the film…
ROBERT AVILA: Who was killed?
ODAY RASHEED: The one who acted the Christian guy, Ziyad, the photographer. They shot him in his kitchen. [Editor’s note: popular radio journalist Hadi al-Mahdi, actor from Qarantina, was killed at his home in Baghdad on September 8, 2011.]
ROBERT AVILA: Why?
ODAY RASHEED: Because he had a weekly radio show and in this show he was collecting the events of the week and discussing it with the people live, on the radio. Mainly, it concerned Iraqi problems, which is connected to the government. So he was extremely critical of the government and the people in the government. They asked him to stop so many times. I asked him to stop. I said, ‘Please, Hadi, they will kill you. They are not like Saddam, sending someone to put you in jail, no. They will kill you.’ And this is what they did. They shot him in the head.
So, what I’m saying here, those people, the “third group,” they [have real power]. Even the Minister of Culture, he couldn’t come and see the film, because now he’s the Minister of Culture and the Minister of Defense at the same time (which is weird). So what happened, part of this group went to the minister, telling him, ‘Oday shows in his film a religious man with a turban’ (which does not exist in the film), and ‘in a very obvious [blatant] scene he rapes his daughter.’ And then [the Minister] calls me and asks, ‘what’s going on?’ I said, ‘you have the film, go and see if you have anything [to object to in it].’ He said, ‘This is what they told me.’ So imagine how powerful they are, if they can reach him.
ROBERT AVILA: I want to ask further about day-to-day reality on the streets in Baghdad. There’s a short scene in the film, for example, where the boy is studying and doesn’t even look up or blink when suddenly we hear this violence erupting just beyond the window he’s sitting beside. Or another shot from the perspective of a military gun turret driving through the street, where people walk by oblivious. Such scenes speak volumes about what has become normal. But what was it like to film there? Is it still quite dangerous? How did you operate day to day?
ODAY RASHEED: You mentioned the scene on top of the humvee, with the gun. I used this humvee for protection. So we were shooting in the street with protection.
SANTHOSH DANIEL: Protection from whom?
ODAY RASHEED: From the Ministry of Defense. I wrote a special request, and they provided us with some very fine officers, they were nice. They allowed us to use this [humvee gun turret] in the shot.
SANTHOSH DANIEL: How does that work? When you shoot a film here, you close down an entire street.
ODAY RASHEED: I didn’t close any street.
SANTHOSH DANIEL: And what was the reaction of people around you?
ODAY RASHEED: They didn’t care because they thought it was a military convoy. You see, in the picture, nobody looks at the camera. That was the message of the whole scene. I saw this myself: I’m in the humvee and nobody cares. It’s like Volkswagens [to them], not a big army machine. My nephew was playing this video game, where it’s only the machine [gun] and the people. And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it in this way.’ The next day, I just put the camera on the [gun turret of the] humvee.
ROBERT AVILA: The sound itself is startling.
ODAY RASHEED: The whole soundtrack was made in Germany. It was all made [afterward], including the dialogue, everything. I had recorded the [live] dialogue but it was a dirty sound because of all the helicopters and the [background] noise, including the local generators.
ROBERT AVILA: That’s very interesting, because the way silence works in the film is central.
ODAY RASHEED: That came from the script. If I showed you the script, it’s like 100 pages and only 12 or 13 with dialogue. The sad thing is that most of the interviews that I do—and this is not your fault—they drive toward political and social issues in Iraq, and forget about the artistic side. I do understand. But if you ask me about my art experience, it was experience in silence. But if you hear it well, there is not even one second of [pure] silence in the film. It was another kind of noise, other voices.
ROBERT AVILA: I didn’t mean to downplay the aesthetic achievement. The social and political questions do come up, of course, because we are all implicated and invested in Iraq. But the first thing you notice is that this is a beautiful looking film. And you really do notice the silence. Can you discuss your intention in using the silence?
ODAY RASHEED: Definitely I want you to feel what I’m doing, during the film. Feelings are very important in any film. But also I want you to think, and to help me and help the character go forward with the story. Because everything about Baghdad is loud—it’s loud with issues, with the smell of blood, with the bombing, the helicopters, and the talking (there’s too much talking in our life in Baghdad)—the silence was for me the abstract platform for these realistic elements, to keep it real and still remain a research in beauty.
It’s weird. My first film was basically based on voiceover and dialogue, voiceover and dialogue. I tried this. That was my situation in 2003. I did this film in 2008. That’s five years in between. I started to see life differently—the relationship between the film and life. Andrei Tarkovsky talks about how you “fix the time” in a shot. For me, fixing the time is connected with what’s been said and what you are waiting to say—there’s a space in between. This space of silence, I think it’s full of energy, and economic also in terms of the beauty of narration
So that was my attempt, to experiment with all of this, while not being the predictable filmmaker from Baghdad, you know, who will tell a story about people shouting. And the most important thing: This is the way I see the Iraqi character when it’s defeated. All the characters in the film have been defeated by something. This is the way that they function when they are defeated.
ROBERT AVILA: You said it was 2008 when you went back to Baghdad after about three years. How had it changed in that time?
ODAY RASHEED: Well, nothing surprised me, to tell the truth. I expected everything. If you go back to see my first feature, Underexposure (which we shot in November 2003 and was done in March 2004, immediately after the war), you see that what I discuss in the film predicts everything that will happen in the immediate future. Everything we are living right now, I said it in that film, sometimes even directly. I have a scene in the film where some old people say, ‘The occupation is not the big thing right now. The big danger is the way we are looking at each other.’
So when I came to Baghdad I wasn’t surprised, actually. I felt sorry. Even if you’re right about such things, it can end up making you sadder. You say things you wish will not happen, but they happen. The thing that hurts me most to this day, really deep in my heart, is the way Iraqi society and character have become so negative. Something inside has been killed. Even how we deal with the garbage, the basic things in life. How we can live in a clean place. How we can help a brother or a neighbor—the basic things in any society, which were the fundamentals in our society 20 years ago.
Now it’s the other way around. Everything has fallen apart. Everybody is against everybody. It’s a strange kind of aggression inside the Iraqi character toward anything that requires any kind of energy—to think about what kind of people you’re electing, for example. That really makes me sad. The ability of producing violence also.
SANTHOSH DANIEL: In Ned’s piece, he wrote that in 2005 you left Iraq because you felt unsafe. What changed that made you feel you could come back now?
ODAY RASHEED: I didn’t make the decision to live in Baghdad yet. I’m kind of there and everywhere. But in 2005, the sectarian violence started to get really bad. I was on TV most of time or in newspapers, and doing documentaries, so it was stupid to even think about staying. In 2006, 2007, until mid-2008, things crashed and then the security situation improved. There was a new hope. So I went back to practice this hope, actually.
ROBERT AVILA: I’m wondering what you see in the immediate future for Iraq?
ODAY RASHEED: For me, it’s so simple to analyze. You have people in power. You just to try to educate yourself, what’s their basic thinking? All of them are extremists. All are sectarian. All believe in the rule of God and not the rule of humanity on earth. Everything you have to do is connected with something they believe and it doesn’t matter what you believe.
With this kind of fabric, even if there’s peace in Baghdad it isn’t going to be your peace or my peace. What we did was replace a secular dictatorship with a radical [rightwing] democracy. It’s kind of a circle, because they keep producing each other. It’s the same posts but if you look to the secular people in the political scene in Baghdad, they have vanished. There’s no one really representing the secular mentality of this country.
*ROBERT AVILA: [to Ned] What do you see as the significance of the film, the filmmaker, and the Independent Film Center he helped found in the context of today’s Iraq? Now that the US has declared an official end to the occupation, do you see the prospects for Iraqi filmmakers and artists like Rasheed becoming easier, harder, or remaining what they were before?
*NED PARKER: In Qarantina, Oday made a movie that is incredibly personal. That’s the beauty of the film. You don’t need to know anything about the Iraq war to appreciate Qarantina. The film shows people making choices and reflecting on their pasts—Baghdad, with all its troubles, serves as a backdrop and character in their searching, but the story is about people first.
Under Saddam, it would not have been possible to make a movie like Qarantina that touches on so many taboos and is independent, if not subtly critical, of political ideologies. The flipside remains that lawlessness and bloodshed have dominated the years since Saddam’s fall. It is far from certain that Iraq will become a stable country with an elected government that respects people’s lives. The space for independent viewpoints and personal freedom could very well disappear.
But for now, people like Oday continue to work. Oday and Furat and a group of filmmakers have founded the Independent Film Center in downtown Baghdad. In their building, on the eastern bank of the Tigris river, ideas are shared; movies are watched; here the next generation of filmmakers are writing scripts and making movie shorts. By opening the center, Oday and his peers are creating a place in Baghdad where people can express themselves freely and create their own visions free from the grip of political parties or sectarian thought. If Iraq evolves into a working democracy and a vibrant, free society, places like the Independent Film Center will have played a role.
SANTHOSH DANIEL: [to Oday] I’m not trying to force you to put a positive spin on the situation you’ve just described, but it seems there is this small group of dedicated people around film that are trying to do something in Iraq, and that’s a very good thing.
ODAY RASHEED: No, there are a lot of positive things. It’s a big society. I’m talking about the big scene. For example, if you’re a Sunni, six months ago you walked in a Shia street without being scared. But now, you think twice. This is what I meant. And it’s the other way around for Shias. But definitely with the secular leftwing mentality, they are in danger. Even if you don’t say anything.
I promised my mom that I wasn’t going to do any TV interviews, or if I had to I’m not going to talk about politics, because this is dangerous. And everybody is talking about listing of names. ‘You take care, there’s a list of names.’ This kind of thing. It’s terrifying. This is what I meant. I’m not saying there is nothing positive happening in Iraq. We are in the middle of a great workshop with 25 young filmmakers in Baghdad. This is one of the most positive things that you can get.
ROBERT AVILA: This is the Iraqi Independent Film Center.
ODAY RASHEED: Yeah, the history of the place: It belonged to an Iraqi Jew who was the first finance minister after the British invaded Iraq in the last century. It’s one of the most beautiful houses in the history of Baghdad. It’s the house where Qarantina takes place. We have renovated it now. It’s next to the river [Tigris]. When I was done with the film, given that location, I said, “I’m not going to leave.”
Rob Avila is a San Francisco-based writer, and film and stage critic. He is a regular contributor to SF360 and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has worked with the Global Film Initiative on a range of projects and programs, including Global Lens educational resources, filmmaker interviews and the Initiative’s Granting Program.
* indicates portion of interview conducted privately due to scheduling conflict, and incorporated into original per approval of all parties