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In 1979, Nabeel Yasin fled his homeland with his wife Nada and three-year-old son because he had published poetry that did not conform to the views of Saddam Hussein and his regime, including the work The Poet Satirizes the King.
Branded an 'enemy of the state', Yasin faced imprisonment and likely death if he remained in Iraq. He continued to write and publish poetry from exile in the UK, his works smuggled back into Iraq where they became a popular symbol of resistance.
Now the Iraqi poet is running for the position of prime minister in the upcoming Iraqi elections.
Filmmaker Georgie Weedon tells Yasin's story in her film, The Poet of Baghdad.
Al Jazeera's Donata Hardenberg spoke to Weedon about the making of the film.
Al Jazeera: How did you meet Nabeel Yasin?
Georgie Weedon: I met Nabeel while we were both working on different films for the BBC. He was consulting on a film about Iraq and I had just returned from co-authoring a book about the Middle East. We got talking and became friends.
Why did you decide to make a film about him?
Nabeel is an extremely impressive and inspiring person, and it became apparent very quickly that he had had an extraordinary life.
He is a potent mix of prolific talent as a poet, deep intellect and, as it turned out, strong moral courage. He also has a keen sense of humour which is critical if you are going to enjoy the process of making a film about a potentially very tragic subject.
When the war was declared in Iraq in 2003, Nabeel was able to end his exile and go back for the first time in 28 years. I knew by then that I wanted to make a film about his exile and his return.
I was also keen to make a film about Iraq that would not propagate images of violence and of war.
What was your first impression of Nabeel?
Charismatic, intelligent and kind.
How did you prepare for the shooting of the film?
I work with a very talented, BAFTA award-winning cameraman called Tom Swindell. We shot the poetry performance scenes in a theatre close to where I live in London. It was great to be able to use the theatre lighting to create an atmosphere for Nabeel's performances.
Other parts of the film were filmed by Nabeel in Iraq, a friend called Inigo Gilmore gave us some footage, I did some of the filming, and even Johnny Burke, the editor of the film, did some filming. So it was a fully collaborative shoot!
What inspired you? And what fascinates you about Nabeel?
Nabeel stood up for something he believed in - freedom and justice.
He put his life on the line, as well as the safety of his family, because he would not be silenced by a tyrannical dictator.
I think that is pretty extraordinary.
Why did you think it was important to tell his story?
It felt important to document Nabeel's story, both in terms of the power of culture in transforming society and also in showing something about Iraq that moves away from the regurgitated news-mediated images of death and destruction.
I would like to be part of a different picture of Iraq and its future.
How did you get him to tell you his story?
By the time I suggested that we make a film together about Nabeel's story of exile and return we had become friends. We trusted and respected each other, which for me is an integral part of the genesis of any film I would want to pursue.
|Nabeel Yasin, left, with filmmaker
Because we were friends, Nabeel was happy to talk about his story.
In some senses it was important to capture the story of his exile and his dreams of his homeland, before he went back to the reality of Iraq which is so altered compared to his memories.
He was about to embark on a significant journey and was interested in working on recording it with me.
What was your biggest challenge?
Teaching Nabeel how to use the camera to film in Iraq!
How would you describe the film?
A love story set within a political climate.
How did the story start for Nabeel? How did he become the Poet of Baghdad?
Nabeel would give poetry readings when he was at university in Baghdad. His readings started gathering large crowds.
When he read from his poetry collection, The Poet Satirizes the King, he was beaten up and arrested by Saddam's secret police.
His life became a living hell under the frequent visits from the secret police and he finally decided to leave Iraq with his wife Nada and first young son Yammam.
They lived in many countries before settling in Hungary and then the UK.
Nabeel described his homeland as a suitcase during that time.
Back in Iraq, Nabeel's poetry was banned which made him in some ways the poet of the resistance. His most famous and popular poem during this time was called Brother Yasin.
What is the role of poets in Baghdad?
Poetry is very popular and powerful in Iraq. It is part of Iraq's extremely rich traditional and cultural heritage.
What are Yasin's poems about? Why are they so powerful?
For me his poems are about family, love and loss - universal themes. The poems are powerful because they beautifully express a simple truth.
What is Nabeel doing now?
Nabeel is now running for parliament in the January 2010 elections in Iraq through his party, Renew Iraq.
He hopes to become prime minister.
Nabeel has a good chance of winning the election. He brings integrity, leadership and a huge desire to unite the Iraqi people across tribal and religious divides and form a progressive, modern government.
Why did you choose Nabeel for your documentary and not another poet from Baghdad?
I found Nabeel's story prescient as not only is he a prolific and popular poet, he is also an academic who has spent the past 28 years of his life in exile.
The fact that he was returning to his homeland after so many years also brought a unique perspective.
Is he well known in the Iraqi community?
How have people reacted to your documentary about Nabeel?
Most people have been extremely moved by the film. Nabeel's honestly and his story are deeply moving, while his hope for the future is inspiring.
We have had lots of press in the international media and it seems that there is a genuine and wide interest in Nabeel and his story.
What are the biggest problems facing Iraq today?
Disunity and redundant agendas on all sides.
What do you think should be done in Iraq to stop violence and instability?
Iraq needs a strong and respectable Obama-type leader to bring all its groups together and work for a united future, both internally in Iraq and externally within the International arena. I can recommend someone who is up to the job ...
What is the next project you are planning to work on?
I am continuing to film with Nabeel and his family, perhaps I always will!
I am also working on a feature film set within the climate change movement and Obama's inauguration inspired by Haskell Wexler's 1968 film Medium Cool.
The Poet of Baghdad can be seen on Thursday, January 14, 2010, at the following times GMT: Thursday: 0830 and 1900; Friday: 0330, 1400 and 2330.