On a hot summer’s day, past masters of Iraqi cinema, government officials and their bodyguards joined a group of fans for a “special evening” at Baghdad’s main theatre.
Many who attended were eager to forget the bitter daily realities for a short time, focusing on brighter moments in the country’s tumultuous recent history that has included wars, sanctions and coups.
Guests trickled into the National Theatre in the capital’s Karrada district – once the haunt of artists and bohemians – after a thorough search and patting down by guards at the gate.
Inside the entrance hall, faded photographs of Iraqi directors, actors and producers are pinned to a large bulletin board, while scenes from black-and-white movies from the 1950s and 1960s flickered on a small screen nearby.
Darkness to daylight
Attending the festival was Sana Ali Abbas, 61, who says she is the country’s first female cinematographer with 20 documentaries to her credit.
Valuable master copies of Iraqi
“I was tougher than the men. I used to carry my heavy camera on my shoulder,” she said.
“I filmed a speeding train once and I worked in fields on the Iranian border filled with land mines.”
Abbas attended the event with her daughter Nibras, 37, all the way from their home in Baghdad Jadida, one of the capital’s most volatile neighbourhoods and the scene of frequent sectarian killings.
But they preferred not to talk about the violence or say whether they were Sunni or Shia.
“Darkness always turns into daylight,” Abbas said.
The national theatre became a depositary for Iraq‘s modest cinema heritage after the bombardment and subsequent looting of the national cinema and theatre department at the Rashid theatre on the west bank of the Tigris.
“The problem with Iraqi cinema was that it did not have the sex appeal of Egyptian cinema, with its women frolicking in bathing suits”
Abdel Hadi Mubarak, Iraqi film director
The building was stripped by looters and torched, a fate that befell most public institutions, including the national library and museum, after US troops seized Baghdad on April 9, 2003.
“We have lost forever the masters for 12 of the 99 films produced in Iraq and a lot of what’s left is damaged,” said Qassim Muhammad, 53, the head of the culture ministry’s cinema department.
Muhammad and Hussain Alwan, his assistant in the archives and projection room, are trying to restore and preserve some of the damaged films using elementary techniques.
Director Abd al-Hadi Mubarak, 73, said: “I wish I could get my film ‘The Mermaid of the Euphrates‘ back.”
Mubarak, considered the doyen of Iraqi cinema, made the film in 1955. Its plot, about a girl who defies her father and tradition to pursue her university studies, was bold for its time.
He remembers the first purely Iraqi movie – Fitna and Hassan produced in 1947 by Studio Baghdad – a company founded by an Iraqi Jew, a Muslim and a Christian.
Mubarak spoke fondly of the time under Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi leader, despite his resentment over his government’s virtual monopoly of television and film production and its obsession with historical epics and works with heavy political messages.
“The problem with Iraqi cinema was that it did not have the sex appeal of Egyptian cinema, with its women frolicking in bathing suits,” he said.
He points to a fading yellow poster on the wall behind him of the movie The Desert’s Hero, made in the late 1980s about a brave Arab tribesman fending off invaders – a clear allusion to Saddam.
Asked what he thought of Iraq now, Mubarak said: “It’s too painful, I can’t deal with it. I stay home most of the time.”