- 6.7.2015 8:33 -
An Iraqi Among Iraqis
Read the interview with director Abbas Fahdel, a nominee of the Doc Alliance Selection Award 2015 and a very fresh winner of Visions du Réel festival. Learn more about his masterpiece Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)!
Dear Abbas, thank you very much for your time devoted to our conversation. We are pleased to have your awarded film Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) on the list of nominees of the 8th edition of the Doc Alliance Selection Award and we are curious to learn more about it.
Your film Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) has a very unusual structure. It is split into two parts: "Before the Fall", showing the situation in Iraq before the invasion of the US military, and "After the Battle", describing the situation after the war. Each part of the film is nearly 3 hours long. Was it your primary plan to make a film consisting of two parts? Do you perceive the length of the film as a problem for the audience?
The American invasion of Iraq was such a significant turning point in the life of Iraqis that they talk about “before” and “after”. That is why I decided to divide the film into two parts. The decision has also influenced the unusual length of the film. Thanks to the division, it is possible to screen the two parts separately and make a break between them.
I was naturally aware that the film’s length may represent a handicap for its distribution (in cinemas, on television and at festivals), however, I couldn’t do it in any other way; the events captured in the film are so complex and important that it is impossible to alter them in the narrative.
Your film was awarded the Sesterce d´Or (Best Feature Film Award) in Nyon this April. Where do you see the power of your film that was able to communicate with the jury of Visions du Réel festival?
Your question was answered by the jury that awarded the Sesterce d’Or award. In the statement, the jury gives the following explanation: “Abbas Fahdel paints a sensitive and expansive portrait of a country and a people about which we had until now only the vaguest of notions, based on 25 years of news and propaganda. Little by little the clichés fall away to reveal characters, men, women and children who we become close to. Mixing a family story with an epic novel, daily life and the war, the family’s history and history with a capital H, the film takes us from Baghdad to the banks of the Tigre River. A great film.”
Your previous documentary films, too, cover the topic of the war conflict in the context of Iraqi society (We Iraqis and Back to Babylon). The protagonists of your films often include your family, friends, those who are very close to you personally. How are you able to differentiate your role as a family member, a friend and a director? It has to be a very difficult situation, especially in case of your latest film Homeland where we can see the death of your young nephew.
I am only able to make films about people and themes I like; about my family, my friends and my homeland. Although I’ve lived in France since the age of 18, every time I go to Iraq I am in my element, like an Iraqi among Iraqis. On the other hand, when shooting, I have to keep a certain distance from the things I’m shooting as a filmmaker while retaining a certain sympathy for the protagonists. Shooting in Iraq, both before and after the war, was not easy at all. I was in danger several times and my life was at stake, however, I felt obliged to keep shooting. Only when my nephew Haider, who plays an important role in the film, was killed did I feel that I couldn’t to go on. I stopped shooting for good and I couldn’t even look at the footage for ten years. Only after ten years of mourning was I able to watch the shot scenes and it was then that I thought of turning them into Homeland.
All your films take place in Iraq but you have spent more than 25 years in exile in France. How did your film and your camera help you to return home to Babylon to go on in relationships that had been broken off?
I was shooting my first film about Iraq, Back to Babylon, in 2002. I returned there, so to say, on tiptoe and with a French passport; which was the only way of entering the country and being able to leave it again. After a long absence, I would walk through my homeland as a stranger. When I walked down the street in the first days, I felt that though I was part of the crowd, I would stick out somehow, like a foreign body or a lost tourist (I even needed help to find the way to my native house which had been rebuilt into a bakery, in a neighbourhood that I no longer recognized). However, I soon regained a sense of belonging and a pleasant awareness that I was developing in my own element and among my people. This is where the call at the end of the film comes from: “This is the first time that I think: We Iraqis!” The call gave the title to my next film We Iraqis.
Towards the end of my first return to my homeland, I realized that I was missing something I would have expected to encounter there, finding something I wouldn’t have thought of instead. The norms and values were completely overturned. What would have happened to me had I stayed in Iraq? What kind of a possible forming of my nature did I miss by moving my life story elsewhere? I asked myself this kind of questions with a little frantic and forever insatiable curiosity. Looking at what life in Iraq had done to my old friends, I said to myself that had I not left, the same would have undoubtedly happened to me. However, I did leave without any doubt and I was so proud of my choice that I did not hesitate to face my father’s disapproval back then. Now my father is no longer among us and nobody from my family blames me for steering my life to the “overseas” anymore; on the contrary, they’re telling me that if I had stayed in Iraq, I wouldn’t have survived for sure. So I’m actually a survivor!
In 2002, Back to Babylon was screened by a French TV channel. An article about the film that was published in the press quite shook me, as it ended with the following lines: “Besides looking at a forgotten country in the grip of the embargo, the television holds a strange mirror up to us, asking a disturbing question: will we be the last ones to see those people alive?“ This completely legitimate question shocked me thoroughly. The idea that the members of my family, my friends and the unknown people I filmed may not survive the coming war was hardly bearable for me. Under the pressure of a certain unadmitted superstitiousness, I decided to return to Iraq and keep on shooting. To me, shooting films is an expression of life; when shooting a film about my closest on the eve of war, I was driven by a superstitious hope that I can save them from the impending danger in this way. Unfortunately, the spiral of violence that seized the country soon plunged my family into sadness.
Your filmography includes one fiction film as well. Dawn of the World describes a love story on the background of the Gulf War. Was it just a one-time flirt with fiction film or do you have any future plans to work with this film discipline again? Why is documentary film the direction you incline to more?
I like both documentary and fiction film and like Godard says: All great fiction films tend towards documentary, just as all great documentaries tend towards fiction. Nevertheless, I believe that a documentary director has more control over his film. When making a fiction film, there are many things that can escape you; an actor may not be able to make the required face, the set and the props may not correspond to what you imagined. Another advantage of documentary film is that one can make it alone, or almost alone, like I did in case of Homeland. My next two films will be, If I manage to make them, a documentary and a fiction film. The documentary Baghdad will follow the life and rhythm of this great city from dawn to midnight. The fiction film Baghdad Story will deal with the abduction of a western journalist in Iraq on the backdrop of war.
The winner of the Doc Alliance Selection Award will be announced on August 8 in Locarno. Along with Homelad (Iraq Year Zero), there are 6 more nominated films. Do you know your competitors and how do you feel in their company?
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any of the films; however, I am sure that they are important and useful works that are worth seeing. My congratulations go to the winner that will have the honour of receiving the Doc Alliance Selection Award now already.
Thank you veru much, Abbas, for your precious time. We all wish you the best of luck!
Andrea of the Doc Alliance Films´ team