Interview with Maythem Ridha, director of Ali and His Miracle Sheep
Monday 7 February 2022, by
Guided by his grandmother’s haunting Sumerian lament, 9-year-old orphaned mute Ali takes his favourite sheep for sacrifice. Over a 400km journey they bear witness to the beauty and unravel the ills of Iraq. Can both boy and sheep survive the hardship and accept their fate? A lyrical tale about the loss of childhood against the harsh realities of adult life.
How did you come across Ali and learn about his fate?
In 2018, I was shooting in Iraq an ongoing film and photography passion project called “Tear Maker”. I came across many people leading sheep to sacrifice for the souls of their deceased relatives. I photographed them and those images haunted me. I came across children who had lost fathers in the battles against ISIS. They were simple farmers who were brutally killed fighting well trained terrorists… Leaving another traumatized generation of Iraqis from the previous decades of tyranny and war. I had already decided that in order to tell more powerful stories in Iraq I needed to train as a psychotherapist. I became particularly interested in working with childhood trauma. I started looking for a powerful character to bring to life the story that those photographs were evoking in me. I decided to work with a hybrid form (drama and documentary) and create a docufiction that would symbolize this national trauma. I returned to Iraq and after a long search and several dangerous encounters in the countryside we drove past a lady who was washing and talking to her buffalos. I asked the driver to stop. We spoke to her. She asked me what tribe I was from… it turned out she came from the same clan as I did and welcomed me to the village as a long lost relative. She became the grandmother in the film. Her grandson immediately stood out. I asked him, if I gave him a sheep would he walk to sacrifice it for the soul of his dead father. He said yes and our journey began. I began by workshopping with the boy and his grandmother, who, as non-actors, are just playing themselves, acting out scenes close to their own reality. I used “sketch ideas” as starting points to improvisations before we shot.
Did you find that he and the other people featured in your film were quite happy to take part in the filming?
All the characters in the final film were keen on participating. Many incidents and secondary characters were “found” on the journey, and we re-dramatized their lives into their sacred walk, sometimes interacting with them through the techniques of “Invisible Theatre”. The miracle scene in the film was completely unscripted, the sheep was ill and collapsed, looking dead, on the street then revived and was alive again. The old man appeared out of nowhere and declared the sheep a miracle. Pilgrims gathered around us and started shouting and celebrating this moment. As we walked along the desert filming we were slower than the other pilgrims and the “miracle” reputation reached other tents ahead of us. To the point that we became “the story” amongst the over 10 million pilgrims gathered in Karbala.
Can you tell us more about the conditions for the shoot? What sort of obstacles did you face?
The shoot was very difficult, and we had to make sure that we were in the right place at the right time amongst the millions gathered in Karbala. We thought in 2019, with ISIS now defeated, we were going to be filming during a very peaceful time in Iraq, but it was an illusion. A week into pre-production a mass uprising started which quickly turned violent and over 500 people were killed. The government imposed curfews and cut internet and phone services. We resorted to using pen and paper and outdated analogue techniques of communication such as sending an assistant to physically pass on messages and instructions. Sometimes we would leave to film in the morning only to find the road back to base was blocked. Sometimes we would be held up at gunpoint at paramilitary checkpoints whilst they verified whatever story we had given them. The uprising also forced the Iraqi government to resign. So, our funding from the cinema department of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture was also gone. It was a case of self-funding and finding collaborators and supporters. Another challenge was the sheep became severely ill and we had to submit to his reality and rewrite our story accordingly. The difficulties went beyond the shoot and into the post-production. Lockdown happened and we were forced to work remotely with massive 4k files across different countries and regions.
What’s your background as a filmmaker? What sorts of subjects and genres are you keen to tackle next?
I started out with photography at a young age, which I still use as a creative process. In filmmaking I worked in television for a while and found myself making documentaries for a few years before I went to the NFTS and discovered different ways of working with drama. I became drawn to the idea of combining what I loved from drama and from documentary by using a hybrid style to make films that can use any form and any visual vocabulary that fits the story I want to tell. Also, I’m exploring immersive filmmaking, incorporating drama, docs and VR storytelling. I’m interested in quite a few subjects including how stories, myths and collective memory can shape who we are. Also, I’m experimenting with how cinema and psychotherapy can work together. Both are topics in my upcoming films.
Is there a particular short film that has made a strong impression on you?
There are so many short films but if I was to choose just one it would be The Red Balloon, a 34-minute film directed by Albert Lamorisse in 1956. It is beautifully poetic and pure visual storytelling at its best, which won the grand prize at Cannes and an Oscar. For me short films are very important and at times more challenging than longer films. You can be wildly experimental and employ any form and vocabulary but at the same time you must be concise and refine your craft.
What’s your definition of a good film?
A good film often tells a deeper story that goes beyond the surface story, touching the very core of our being. Maybe creating healing, catharsis or change. Perhaps something that challenges us and enables us to re-evaluate what it means to be human today.
You can read our review of the short here.