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At Iraq film festival, movies focus on the ravages of war

Aamer Madhani Chicago Tribune

BAGHDAD, Iraq – 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 movie 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 came to a close.

The festival’s board of directors received more than 140 submissions from 136 directors in 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 presently residing in the country would be eligible for the cash prizes.

The films’ themes skew heavily toward the ravages of war – subjects fused into the lives of Iraqis who over the last 25 years have endured the Iraq-Iran war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the subsequent Persian Gulf war and the 2003 U.S. invasion.

One director documented the 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,” a fictional account of ambivalent feelings one man has over 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 a long string of wars has had on Iraq.

The grand prize, to be announced today, is $4,000 – chump change for a Hollywood picture 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 Iraq’s film industry past, 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 and odes to Arab history.

But Iraq doesn’t have a particularly storied film history. During Saddam’s regime, filmmakers rarely addressed important issues or raised larger questions about the human condition out of fear of angering the now-deposed dictator.

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