On the red carpet at Basra's film festival. (photo: Qumrah film festival)
The opening of a new multiplex movie theatre in the southern Iraqi city of Basra has gotten local film makers and actors talking. Will they ever get to see a locally-made production screening there? After all, Basra was one of the first cities in the region to open a movie theatre.
Sadly, most of those here who know the movie business remain pessimistic. In the past, Iraqi film makers relied mainly on state funding. The movies that were funded by the government were usually used for promotional or propaganda purposes. The few individual, non-government attempts to make Iraqi movies withered away as the country dealt with international sanctions against it, under Saddam Hussein.
In Basra, there are no professional camera, lighting or sound professionals. You need a real film crew to make a film.
This has seen a correspondent decline in the skills film makers need. The standard of cinematography here is “under zero,” says Fathi Shaddad, head of the artists union in Basra. “All the arts in Iraq have deteriorated but cinema has suffered more than all the others because it is an industry in which people want to make a profit,” he complains. “We lack almost all of the required infrastructure, including expertise, funding, studios for production and cinemas. A whole generation has forgotten about movie making,” he laments.
Nobody wants to fund local movie makers, says Raad Abu Ashtar, a local actor and scriptwriter. “You need millions to make a 90-minute feature film and we don’t even have a quarter of that sort of money available in Iraq,” he says. “This has a very negative impact on the aspirations of local film makers. Most of us are now dependent on individual organisations that allow us to produce short films, that we can screen by posting onto social media, like Facebook. We just really want to practice our profession and reach an audience,” he laments.
But screening online can also have negative aspects. Many of the film makers fear that if they show the films online, there won’t ever be any point showing them elsewhere and the films will lose their currency for prospective festivals and cinemas.
To make his films, Rahim Khalaf, a local actor, who’s been working in this area since 1983, says he relies on funding from local initiatives and on crowd funding when possible. He has used his own home as a location many times, as well as the business premises and vehicles of other locals who want to help.
Mostly he screens the finished product on YouTube or Facebook and it is the positive response he gets from watchers that keeps him going.
“We have screened a number of short films online and this provides experience for the talented young people of Basra, it introduces new faces and attracts the attention of festival organisers,” Khalaf explains.
Of course, the Basra film makers would love to make a full-length movie one day. But this requires a lot more film industry than currently exists in Iraq. “In Basra, there are no professional camera, lighting or sound professionals,” Abu Ashtar points out. “You need a real film crew to make a film.”
“These small offerings on social media don’t mean we are making films that could be shown in cinemas,” he continues. “The short films posted on social media lack a lot and they should also be of a certain standard, which they are not. Today Iraqi cinema is well outside the real film business.”
Shaddad says that he and his colleagues in the arts are still trying to keep their hopes up, by organising events like the annual Al Qumrah film festival, to be held in Basra in April. “We are trying to provide talented young people with opportunities,” Shaddad says, stressing the importance of ensuring that locals contribute to these efforts and that they don’t just rely on films screened online and produced by outsiders.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. The success of the new cinemas at Basra’s Times Square shopping mall might encourage more investment in the local film sector, suggests Ghaith Majid, a student at the local college of fine arts. He hopes this will mean people in his hometown become more aware of the impact a film can have and that one day, he might be able to play a part in this after he graduates.
“This city is rich in history and it is a fertile land for ideas for films,” he enthuses. “Iraqis are keen to see more films about Iraqis, made by Iraqis,” he argues.
Movies showing at Basra's Times Square Mall this week.