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First edition of the Independent Iraqi Film Festival

Monday 24 August 2020, by Abla Kandalaft

Oline and entirely free to watch, the Independent Iraqi Film Festival brings us features, shorts and discussions, shedding a spotlight on a thriving cinematic culture in the country and among the Iraqi diaspora.

IA: Israa Al-Kamali
AH: Ahmed Habib
RT: Roisin Tapponi
SD: Shahnaz Dulaimy

1. How did the team come together and initiate the idea for the festival?

IA: It started with a call from Ahmed Habib, one of the four people working on the festival, back in March. Ahmed and I got together and started throwing all kinds of big ideas with no experience in film curating or directing a festival, but our love for Iraq and films kept us going. Soon Shahnaz and Roisin joined the team, both have a lot of experience in the industry, from making films to curating them. I cannot think of a better team than this one, our drive to make this happen continues to inspire me. We all know how much Iraqi filmmakers and storytellers in general deserve more representation, we also know that there is a huge appetite for this among Iraqis back in the homeland and in the diaspora. We also know that if we can show the world what Iraqis can do with the support they can get, maybe more attention can be given to this currently struggling industry. Making this happen, especially now with the ongoing October Revolution, is so important to us. The revolution proved the resilience of Iraqis and the creative power people hold despite the realities they live in.

AH: For decades, Iraqis have watched their lives and deaths on full display in sounds and images beamed into their lives by filmmakers that couldn’t even pronounce their names. However, over the last few years, a shift has been taking place, where more and more Iraqis both inside the country and in the diaspora, have started telling their story, our story. This festival is for them, so that they are empowered to tell more Iraqi stories.

2. How did you source the films? Did you put out a call for submissions? Go through your networks?

IA: We put out a call for submissions and we received over 80 films from emerging and established Iraqi filmmakers all over the world. This was mainly generated from social media and word of mouth. We wanted to create a balance between established filmmakers and emerging filmmakers in our programme to give the audience a holistic experience.

RT: The number of submissions we received is a testament to the power of the Iraqi community and diaspora. We all watched every single submission and then I curated our favourites into a programme, which was edited and then approved by the rest of the team. It was important for us to reflect the diversity of Iraqi filmmaking in our programme, from experimental to feminist to narrative feature films, we wanted to represent the multiple intersections working within our culturally rich film industry.

3. Can you tell us a bit more about the logistics behind streaming the films? Did you hit any hurdles?

SD: Technically, online screening has been almost effortless for us to host, and the global views have been outstanding. The biggest hurdle, however, has been the horrendous internet speed in Iraq, and it’s a shame that Iraqis locally are having trouble streaming an Iraqi film festival made for them, by them. Many in Iraq have never seen an Iraqi production, either because these films have never been screened in cinemas there, or because they are owned by foreign distributors who have chosen to make the films available only upon purchase on platforms such as Amazon Prime, or iTunes among others, making them completely inaccessible to some, especially to audiences in Iraq. Our intention in hosting an online film festival is to extend our reach, make these films accessible without unjust geo-blocking, and spotlight Iraqi cinema on an international level.

4. What is your experience of the Iraqi film scene? What have you found the main hurdles to be for filmmakers? Are there common themes tackled by current films?

IA: The hurdles are a combination of things: lack of financial support, lack of security and safety, as well as poor production and post-production equipment. The Iraqi filmmaker faces obstacles on many levels from development, to production, to post production, to distributing, and making it to festival circuits. Making a film in Iraq especially is truly a constant battle. Regarding themes, many of the films we are screening in the festival deal with themes such as war, loss, identity, exile and displacement, and memory of a distant past. Yet, it is important to note that compared to films from other Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria, the Iraqi film industry is still shaping its identity due to years of war and destruction. Therefore, we hope that this festival becomes part of this rebuilding process.

5. Is it common or straightforward to secure co production deals with
foreign producers?

SD: It’s never straightforward and there’s always a lot of politics at play within the film industry. The biggest problem with securing European grants, is that they tend to favour working with their own crews whether in production or post-production, and this is because they usually follow schemes to support their local industry and to benefit from tax rebates. This takes away the opportunity from Iraqi professionals to work on productions even if they are about Iraq and filmed in Iraq. It’s quite ironic in my opinion, and without a doubt unfair.

6. What are your hopes and ambitions for the festival? And for the film sector in the country?

SD: That Iraqi filmmakers are given a fair and equal chance in this industry. Iraqi films have been underrepresented on the international circuit thus far, and I hope to see that reversed in the very near future. By providing encouragement and support; Financially, creatively and technically, we can achieve it.

RT: We hope the festival introduces Iraqis worldwide to our incredible contemporary cinema. Our festival is not working on the extremely exclusive ‘premiere status’ of competitive festivals. We want this to be extremely accessible, it is available to watch internationally for free with subtitles and there is no geo-blocking at play, an evil distribution-led practice dominating online distribution of new releases. We hope that our festival introduces people from all backgrounds to Iraqi cinema, not just those working at the ‘top’ of the industry. That way, we are bringing Iraqi cinema to the people, and hopefully it will give Iraqis the chance to reconnect with and feel proud of their cultural heritage.

The festival is available online here from 21-28 August. Follow them @IIFF

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