Independent Film and Television College

Established in 2004, Iraq’s first Independent Film and Television College has produced 13 short documentary films by young Iraqi directors that turned a lot of heads at international festivals. However, with the growing insecurity in Iraq, the school’s future looks bleak.

Maysoon Pachachi

If just taking a camera out on the street, or even shooting from the back of a car could get you killed or stopped by armed militia, the police or the National Guard, would you consider making a film? If you were a student at the Independent Film and Television College (IFTVC) in Baghdad you would. In fact it’s this violence and sectarianism that drove London based Iraqi filmmakers Kasim Abid and Maysoon Pachachi to establish the college at first place.

“We felt that film and television could be powerful tools in the reconstruction and renewal of a shattered society. They could provide a way for a society to look at itself, to question its history and to consider its future.  And they also provide a way for one section of society to talk to another,” Pachachi says. “We want to try to help young people, in particular, to unlock their creative potential and to provide them with a basic training to enable them to put their thoughts and stories on the screen.”

Established in 2004, IFTVC has become the first and only private film and television college in Iraq to date. The college organizes special intensive courses in camera, sound, and lighting as well as documentary film courses all free of charge.

 During the Saddam regime, there was very limited cinema production.  The severe sanctions imposed on Iraq for over 13 years meant was no film stock, labs, and certainly no digital technology. Almost no practical film training had been possible,” Pachachi says.

While before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi documentaries were few and far between, the bloody events of the recent years, coupled with a growth in film stock and digital technology available to Iraqis, kicked more of the country’s filmmakers into action. Flocks of young Iraqis enrolled in the courses of the newly-opened college, producing 13 short documentary films so far and drawing attention in various international festivals.

One such film is Hiba Bassem’s Baghdad days (2005). The 35min documentary about Bassem’s struggles to come to terms with her position as a woman on her own in Baghdad received the New Horizon silver award at the al-Jazeera International Film Festival in Doha (2006) and the golden award at the Rotterdam Arab Film Festival (2006).  Other films by IFTVC students have recently been screened at IDFA in Amsterdam and Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival, New York University, Columbia University and Goldsmith’s College among others.

Kasim Abid

Not without Difficulty

While IFTVC organizes two 4-month-documentary courses a year, keeping to the schedule wasn’t always easy.   “They (the students) often research their projects and once they’ve set everything up, done their camera training and are ready to shoot, they often find that the security situation has suddenly changed and they are now unable to shoot the film they wanted to shoot and have to start all over again,” Pachachi says.

Furthermore, students suffered attempted abduction, saw their houses destroyed by mortar attacks, and their family members kidnapped or violently killed. One student even got shot while shooting his film. This growing insecurity in addition to the rise in the number of nearby explosions, one of which shattered every pane of glass in the college, forced it to close several times. Nevertheless, according Pachachi, IFTVC never cancelled a course. “All this, obviously, has forced us to work in a stop-start manner.  And we have been able to carry on by remaining patient and flexible, working in a low-profile manner and being prepared to improvise,” she says. “It was either this or abandoning our project and we were not willing to do this.”

The continuous delays meant that courses took twice as long, putting economic strain on IFTVC as it is funded by charity, foundation grants and private donations. Furthermore, while the college used to advertise for students and publish announcements in the newspapers in 2004, since the emergence of extremist groups that regard cinema sinful, it’s no longer safe to do so.  “Until there is a serious improvement in the security situation, we will be finding students by contacting colleges and arts centers and by word-of-mouth,” Pachachi says. As a result, only 18 students attended IFTVC’s most recent course, a far cry from the average 25 students who used to apply.

In spite of all difficulties, Pachachi and Abid remain optimistic. “It is difficult to predict how anything in Iraq will develop at the moment, but we are hoping to be able to carry on and to expand our teaching, to offer more courses, expose them (the students) to a wider number of teachers, and support their filmmaking activities,” she says.

This article was published in Tafaseel periodical e-magazine specialized in documentary films. Tafaseel is a publication of Proaction Film company.


  

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Review of The Oath by Laura Poitras / USA

Directed, produced, and shot by Laura Poitras, The Oath moves in a zigzag between the lives of two men: Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, and Abu Jandal, his bodyguard. The first ended up on his knees with a sack on his head in a solitary cell in Guantanamo. The other was arrested in Yemen, enrolled in a government re-education program for Jihadis (called the Dialogue Committee) then released and offered a taxi to make a living.

Ironically, it was Abu Jandal’s declarations during a 15-day non-violent interrogation by the US following the 9/11 bombing that changed the course of the war in Afghanistan. Salim Hamdan on the other hand, after five years of “extreme interrogation”, turned out to be not guilty. Through drawing this stark contrast between the two men’s fates, The Oath reveals that the enhanced interrogation techniques used by the US are no different than the Osama bin Laden bombings. Both often target innocent civilians, both are done under the oath of saving a nation and both failed to reach that goal.

In her film, Poitras breaks the stereotype of an Al Qaeda terrorist by inviting the viewers into the lives of both Hamdan and Abu Jandal. While it doesn’t quite reveal why a man would enrol in Al Qaeda, it does show that members are also human beings, tender fathers and light-hearted teachers. So maybe it’s time to talk to their heads instead of covering them with sacks.

This review was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi 2010. Abu Dhabi film festival’s daily bulletin by Nisi Masa

Playing his own Tune

Listening to Omar Bashir in concert is like taking a whistle-stop musical journey around the world. “In two hours, I can take the audience with my oud from Turkey to Iraq, pass through Syria and Morocco and then enter Spain and Hungary before touching down in France,” Bashir said.

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Omar Bashir

Bashir attributes the cross-cultural influences in his music to his family background; he is the son of a Hungarian mother and his Iraqi father is the celebrated oud player Mounir Bashir. It’s an upbringing which gave him a privileged insight into two different cultures. “I feel lucky because I come from Iraq, the cradle of most musical scales and keys and I also come from Hungary which boasts a great musical history,” Bashir said.

Music – the oud in particular – runs deep in the Bashir family. Along with his father, Bashir’s uncle is also a noted oud musician. Rather than just following in their considerable footsteps, however, Bashir has taken his music one step further by mixing oriental sounds with classical, Latin, Spanish, Indian and Gypsy tunes. “I wanted to show the world that the oud is capable of playing and improvising with any Western folk musical instrument from Japan to America because it has a rich musical history,” he said.

Bashir has travelled around the world spending several months in China, Japan, India and Spain studying the folk music of each country. He even lived with Spanish gypsies for eight months to study flamenco. “This was a very important experience because the gypsies are the people who play real flamenco, but they don’t allow anyone easily into their lives,” he said.

Under Rotana Records, Bashir’s album The Latin Oud rose to number six in the Arab music charts. The album’s unique sound soon attracted attention from outside the Arab world and Bashir went on to sign a contract for the same album with EMI, an international music label with stars such as Michael Jackson and Madonna on its list. Another album, The Civilizations’ Voice, combined Iraqi keys with Indian violins. When DJs remixed the tracks on the album, Bashir’s oud introduced new sounds into the world of techno and house music.

The world-famous French group, The Gipsy Kings, are such fans of his music that they allowed him to adapt one of their songs to put on his album for free. “I rewrote the song on my oud and asked them for the rights,” Bashir said. “When they heard it they said it was an honour to have their song on my album.”

With 18 albums out on the market and numerous concerts sold out all over the world, Bashir is taking the international music scene by storm. He regrets, however, that a form of “music prostitution” is developing in the Arab entertainment industry, whereby production companies are increasingly forsaking the value of good music for quick profits. Bashir believes that the commercial songs flooding the radio and TV stations today are drugging the younger generation like morphine. “It’s a war against culture,” he said. “When a war destroys a country, you can rebuild the houses and infrastructure, but when it destroys the minds and tastes of a whole generation, it takes at least two generations to recover.”

Whilst production companies claim they are only responding to the market’s demands, Bashir believes that people still enjoy listening to non-commercial music; they just need a chance to hear it. “When Rotana produced my album it proved a bestseller, overcoming the famous Lebanese singer Alissa,” he explained.

Bashir explained that a lack of sophisticated auditoriums boasting decent acoustics in the Middle East causes many problems for Arab musicians when they perform in concert. In addition, the shortage of workshops for making fine-quality instruments today further limits their performances. “There’s a tendency towards singing rather than instrumental music in the Arab world, that’s disastrous because music comes from here,” he said.

Bashir also believes that the West seems to appreciate Arab art more than Arabs themselves. He explained that unbeknown to many, Western music scales and keys actually originate from the East. Furthermore, Bashir claims that many Western instruments were born out of the Eastern oud, zither, rebec and flute. He also referred to a French study which concludes that the oud is the origin of all musical instruments in the world.

Today, the Bashir family’s music is renowned in the West. Bashir’s music is even used to treat prisoners suffering from depression in New York’s biggest prison, whilst his father’s music is used at a hospital in Switzerland as therapy for expectant mothers and their babies.

This year, Bashir has already performed six concerts in Spain, France, Hungary and Morocco. He is also set to perform in Syria as part of Damascus as Arab Capital of Culture 2008.

Bashir explains that despite the high acclaim he has received throughout his career, his father’s recognition has meant the most to him. “My father never praised me,” he explains. “He always concentrated on my points of weakness. It was only a month before he passed away, after my flamenco concert, that he told me that I was great and he would not guide me anymore. He consigned the oud to me and I want to live up to it.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.