The Iraqi Cinema looks back on a long and colorful history
originating in the beginning of the 20th century.
The first film projection took place in 1909, but it wasn’t
until 1920 that film became a cultural activity. Historically,
Iraqis watched Egyptian or Hollywood films; especially popular
were subtitled action movies. The first Iraqi production
company established itself in Baghdad in the 1940s. However,
soon the dictatorial rule of the state suppressed any
expression of human creativity and discouraged any socially
relevant films. Since the overturn of the Saddam Hussein
regime then, security concerns, irregular electricity and
Islamist pressures against most forms of entertainment have
led to movie theaters’ closing throughout Iraq. Only three
feature films have been made by Iraqis and in Iraq since the
war of 2003.
Film as a Medium
Yet there are efforts to revive cinema. At present, Iraqi
artists and filmmakers are anxious to take cultural
reconstruction efforts in their own hands. They intend to send
a message to the world that cinema and culture are still alive
It is in this context that the Contemporary Visual Arts
Society (CVAS), an Iraqi non-governmental organisation which
supports and promotes contemporary Iraqi arts and artists,
founded the Iraq Short Film Festival (ISFF) in 2005. Behind
stands the idea that Iraqi filmmakers and production companies
need a forum to establish contact with each other, to exchange
expertise and to show their work to a broader audience. Also
is the Festival supposed to demonstrate the vehement
importance of cinema in Iraq. Film takes on significance as a
medium to narrate the story of a traumatised and crisis-shaken
nation. It serves as a “window”, allowing outsiders to catch a
glimpse of the tragic reality prevailing in this country and
insiders to communicate their fears and sufferings but also
their dreams and their hopes. Over and above that, ISFF aims
at reanimating the Iraqi people to go to the movie theatres –
a tradition that has faded away during the long years of war.
However, ISFF is not only a cultural event, it is also an
instrument to create a global network between filmmakers,
production companies and lending bodies, with the objective to
strengthen the international dialogue on a cultural basis. The
increasing cooperation with different European Film Festivals
would permit the circulation of know-how and enable ISFF to
constantly expand and elaborate its program. On the national
level the collaboration between local contributors, investors
and the regional media is a giant stride towards a system
based on peaceful communication and arrangement which is of
major importance for the Iraqi community.
The 1st Edition of the International Iraq Short
The first ISFF was successfully held during September 24th
– 29th 2005 at the Magic Lamp Movie Theatre in
Baghdad. 140 films by Iraqi, Kurdish and other Arab filmmakers
were submitted to a panel of experts. 58 films were chosen to
compete for 7 prizes: 34 short films, 8 documentaries and 6
animation films. As a first guest country, Germany was invited
to present 28 short films in an own guest section. The
selection was made by the Hamburg Short Film Agency and the
German Film Association. In addition, the Festival received
entries also from Egypt, Great Britain, Japan, Lebanon,
Morocco and Tunisia which were screened separately outside the
Despite the complicated security situation most of the Middle
Eastern artists attended the event. The local audience also
showed great interest with more than 400 people watching the
international screenings, setting a strong signal for the
future. Among them were several important personalities of the
political and cultural life, like Jalal Mashta, an official
representative of the State President and Mufeed Al Jazaeri,
former culture minister and head of the Culture and Tourism
Committee in the National Assembly.
Two Iraqi productions won the category Best Short Film,
by Shawkat Amin Korki andEntrance Close to
Freedom Monument, by Oday Rashid.
Not only many local broadcasters and newspapers covered the
first Edition of the ISFF, also international media coverage
was secured through
BBC broadcasting and BBC British satellite, as well as through
articles in the USA Today, The New York Times and the Chicago
The ISFF received generous support by many regional companies
From the German side the Festival was greatly supported by the
AG Kurzfilm, and IKFF Hamburg who facilitated access to the
German short films and by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as
well as the Goethe Institute who helped logistically.
For a full overview on supporters and sponsors please refer to
The 2nd Edition of the International Iraq Short
A 2nd edition of ISFF is planned for November 2011,
inviting Great Britain as guest country. Nizar Al-Rawi, Head
of ISFF and Intishal Al-Timimi, Director of the Festival
Program, have already outlined the four grand sections of the
Festival program. The official competition will show a variety
of local and international films (fiction, documentary and
animation). This main program is complemented by screenings
outside of competition, a historic side section and a section
on “empowerment of women in life”. The awards that will be
given in 13 categories.
Additionally to the traditional film program the Festival
provides also an honoring ceremony for important personalities
that have contributed to the buildup of Iraqi cinema.
Furthermore, several business seminars are planned to enhance
the local film producer’s knowledge in the development,
production and financing of regionally and internationally
sellable films. Among the accompanying cultural activities
such as concerts, a heritage dance event, a photo exhibition,
an artists-honoring ceremony and, dinner invitations for
directors and donors, the Festival plans the long overdue
publication of a book on Iraqi cinema.
The organizers calculate on a total budget of $410.000. Hence
our first objective is the mobilization of various funds to
assure the financial backing of the Festival. We count in this
matter on the close collaboration and support of diverse local
and international players, sharing one vision of a peaceful
future in the Middle East and willing to contribute to the
realization of this exceptional event.
Sponsors of the 2nd Edition
In addition to a number of Iraqi private companies, a European
organization contributed of coverage a part of the festival
budget, and there is primary agreement with the French
Cultural Center in Baghdad, Iraqi Oil Ministry, and a number
of local radio stations, TV satellite stations, newspapers and
magazines to contribute to the festival, as sponsors, donors,
patrons and supporters.
Sponsors ofthe 1st Edition of the
International Iraq Short Film Festival
Media Coverage during the 1st Edition
The following newspapers supported and covered the event:
Iraq, Sept. 28 - In what was perhaps as much an act
of defiance as a leisurely way of spending an afternoon, more
than 300 Iraqis walked into a theater this past Saturday, and
without metal detectors or security guards, sat down and
watched a movie.Skip
to next paragraph
Nelson/WPN, for The New York Times
Ammar Saad captures video during the Baghdad film festival.
It was the start of Baghdad's first film festival since the
American-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein, a
six-day event that by Wednesday evening had produced hundreds
of happy Iraqis and not a single casualty. While the violence
ground on in other parts of the capital, spectators of all
ages packed into the theater to watch locally made short films
that ranged from a documentary about sheep farmers to a
feature that had eight actors, crying and laughing, entering a
telephone booth one by one.
"We're trying to send a message to people outside Iraq that
this is a real country, not just a hole for terrorists," said
the festival's organizer, Nizar al-Rawi, a graphic designer
who is president of the Contemporary Visual Arts Society here.
"We have thousands of years of art and knowledge. We can
establish social life here."
The venue, a children's theater in central Baghdad called the
Magic Lantern, was crowded with filmmakers and artists in
T-shirts and jeans. People squeezed past one another, their
bodies brushing walls hung with framed pictures from old
movies. Two small boys poured water from pitchers into plastic
cups for viewers.
Some of the 58 short films being shown are whimsical
animations. Others tell tales of suffering since the American
invasion. But perhaps most important, the films, which are
competing for prizes worth several thousand dollars, were made
exclusively by Iraqis, mostly since the fall of the Hussein
"When you see beautiful young people starting these brave
things, you feel happy," said Mufeed Jazaery, who was culture
minister during Iraq's interim government last year. "Under
the surface there is a lot of life and movement that you
cannot see from above."
The film industry in Iraq dates back to the 1940's, and Iraqis
still have fond memories of going to the cinema with their
families in the 1970's and 80's. But with the 1991 Persian
Gulf war and the years of privation that followed the
imposition of economic sanctions, theaters went into decline,
and Iraqis fell out of the habit.
The fighting in 2003 also took its toll. The cinema at the
Baghdad University film school burned down in a bombing.
Looters later took much of what remained of the equipment. Of
Baghdad's 11 film theaters, only a couple are in operation,
said Hamoudi Jassim, a professor at the College of Fine Arts
who helped organize the festival.
Festival participants seemed intent on chronicling the
violence and chaos that have pressed in on their lives. The
first film shown was a documentary about squatters living in a
bombed-out secret police building in central Baghdad.
The filmmaker, Hadi Mahood, said that he was trying to show
how Iraqis' lives are now filled with fear and pain, not
entirely unlike their situation under Mr. Hussein, and that
the police building, where Iraqis were tortured, symbolizes
"Most important is the idea to catch this time, to film it, to
put it on a tape," Mr. Mahood said in an interview.
The films were an early start to this project. Some may have
had poor sound and the unsteady shots that come of using a
small handheld camera, but any lack of skill was more than
balanced by courage and enthusiasm. Festival organizers
expected about 30 films to be submitted, but in fact there
"So many subjects in Iraq are important now," said Mais
a recent graduate of the Baghdad Art
Institute. "It's our duty to tell people how Iraqis are
Taking a camera in hand on the streets of Baghdad is a risky
enterprise, and the filmmakers recounted experiences of having
been attacked and their tapes confiscated.
The perils are set out in a documentary about the killings of
Iraqi journalists made by Ammar Saad, an intense 27-year-old
from an insurgent-controlled neighborhood in southern Baghdad.
Mr. Saad said his film was inspired by the death in 2003 of a
friend who worked for the Iraqiya television station, killed
by a shot fired from an American army base in Samarra, north
"Iraqi journalists are now in a critical position," Mr. Saad
said. "The truth being told by the Iraqi media can really
influence every side."
The title of his film, "Damn Gum," was infused with dark
humor, a reference to Iraqi journalists' difficult role.
"The truth is unacceptable to people," Mr. Saad said, adding
that like gum, "they can't spit it out, and they can't swallow
Harb al-Mukhtar contributed reporting for this article from
Iraqi film fest reveals psyches bruised by war
By Aamer Madhani Tribune staff reporter Published September 29, 2005
BAGHDAD -- Iraq's first attempt at hosting an international
film festival hasn't the buzz of Cannes or the silver screen
starlets of Sundance.
But for the dozens of filmmakers and movie buffs who have
gathered this week at the Magic Lamp theater for the
International Iraq Short Film Festival, there is a feeling
that they are watching the birth of an artistic tradition.
"More than anything, I think what we have accomplished this
week is to create a real feeling of possibility for our work,"
said festival director Hamudi Jassim on Wednesday, as the
fifth day of the six-day festival wound down.
The festival's board of directors received more than 140
submissions from 136 directors from at least six countries. In
all, about 90 short films are being shown at the Magic Lamp.
For this year's competition, festival directors decided that
only directors residing in Iraq would be eligible for a cash
The films' themes skew heavily toward the ravages of war, a
subject fused into the experience of Iraqis, who over the last
25 years have lived through the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s,
the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the subsequent 1991 Persian Gulf
war and the 2003 U.S. invasion.
One director documented a mass killing in a northern village
by the former regime, a topic that would have been taboo if
Saddam Hussein were still in power. Another director named his
seven-minute short "Coca-Cola." It is a fictional account of
ambivalent feelings one man has about the U.S. occupation.
Most of the entries are heavy in substance, and many are
achingly dark in their tenor, focusing on poverty, men dying
at an early age and the devastating effects wars have had on
The grand prize, to be announced on Thursday, is $4,000--chump
change by Hollywood standards but a sum that exceeds the
budgets most Iraqi entrants had for their movies.
While there is no Iraqi equivalent of Martin Scorsese or
Stanley Kubrick, the festival's organizers tried to give a nod
to the Iraqi film industry's past by decorating the walls of
the theater with pictures of well-known Iraqi television and
film actors of the last 30 years. Most of those actors starred
in comedies or in odes to Arab history.
Iraq doesn't have a particularly storied film history. During
Hussein's regime, filmmakers rarely addressed important issues
or raised larger questions about the human condition out of
fear of angering the dictator.
Because of the security situation, Jassim said, organizers
were unable to persuade any of the foreign filmmakers whose
pictures were being shown to attend the festival. Iraqi
filmmakers came from throughout the country. One of the
younger directors had to do a bit of conniving to make it to
Kermanj Qadir, 23, co-director of "None Existing Before
Birth," said his family forbade him from traveling to Baghdad
from their home in the relatively peaceful northern city of
Young director's grim story
Desperate to attend, he said he lied to his mother, telling
her that he was going to a film festival in Irbil, another
fairly quiet northern city.
Qadir's 14-minute film was told from the perspective of a
fetus in a mother's womb. The fetus lives in a nameless
country and is able to view what his life holds for him, a
grim tale of forbidden love and loss.
His father will die a brutal death when his country goes to
war. Fatherless and poor, the protagonist takes comfort
playing the guitar and falls in love with a beautiful girl.
Playing guitar, however, is not very profitable, so he becomes
a baker in the hope he will earn enough money to ask for the
hand of the girl he adores. Her father rejects him.
The film ends with the fetus, unwilling to live in such a
harsh world, willing himself to die in his mother's womb.
"That is life in Iraq--painful," Qadir said.
The idea of holding a film festival in the middle of a war
zone was born in a griping session earlier this year.
BAGHDAD — The dusty streets and bare-bulbed
restaurants don't compare with the glitz of Cannes.
And its entire budget couldn't buy some Hollywood
Nizar Al-Rawi, co-founder and head of the Iraq
Short Film Festival, poses in front of a
poster for the first-time event.
By Mona Mahmoud
But starting Saturday, filmmakers here are competing
in their own, first-ever Iraq Short Film Festival.
About 120 directors submitted 136 films, ranging in
length from less than five minutes to about half an
hour, says Nizar Al-Rawi, the festival chairman.
That's 10 times as many as he expected.
Drama and documentaries dominate list
Number of films
From Iraqi Arabs
From Iraqi expatriates
Number of films
forwarded for final
Best animated film
Source: USA TODAY
The festival began as an idea among members of
Baghdad's Contemporary Visual Arts Society, he says.
There's a small tradition of filmmaking in Iraq, but
it's nothing compared with Egypt's domination of
But the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and the
subsequent turmoil of the country have helped free and
inspire the cinematic arts, he says. There are dramas,
documentaries and even animated shorts among the 58
entries that cleared an initial winnowing.
Iraq's plight of violence and destruction is a common
backdrop for films with titles including In the
Circle of Security, Sweet and Bitter and
Abbass goes to Japan. Even when the plot has
little to do with the fighting, "still, you can smell
the odor of the war in the films," Al-Rawi says.
A panel of experts, including an Iraqi expatriate from
Amsterdam, will spend six days viewing entries at
Baghdad's Magic Lamp Theater to choose winners for
Best Film, Best Documentary and other categories.
Afterward, the best Iraqi films will tour Egypt and
several European venues.
"For far too long, Iraqi filmmakers were unable to
practice their work," says Juliane Schulze, with
Peacefulfish, a German film consultancy assisting the
Nizar Al-Rawi says he hopes Baghdad's event can one
day become the Arab world's largest film festival. But
he's not worried about attracting the glitterati.
Instead of tuxedos, Iraqis "go with jeans," he says.