College Trains Young Iraqi Filmmakers

Maysoon Pachachi, daughter of Adnan Pachachi and founder of the Independent Film & Television College in Baghdad, talks with NPR's Susan Stamberg about some of the documentaries her students have put together about life in that besieged city.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

We see images of Baghdad all the time on TV news: soldiers on patrol, citizens at markets, the detritus of war. But it's rare to see daily life in Iraq from the point of view of Iraqis themselves.

For the past four years, the Independent Film & Television College has trained young Iraqi filmmakers to document that daily life. The training is free, funds come from private donations and international charities, and the short films being made provide real-life glimpses of ordinary people going about their routines when they can.

Maysoon Pachachi, a founder of the school, has been showing these short documentaries at film festivals around the world. She's in our studio now. Welcome to you.

Ms. MAYSOON PACHACHI (Founder, Independent Film & Television College): Thank you.

STAMBERG: One of the strongest of the short films is called "A Candle for the -say it for me - Shabandar…"

Ms. PACHACHI: Shabandar Cafe.

STAMBERG: Thank you. It's the story of a Baghdad gathering place. Who were the patrons of that cafe?

Ms. PACHACHI: Well, the cafe was founded in 1917, so there've been many patrons, and all sorts of people, really. Many people went there to discuss works of literature. Artists went there to exchange, you know, information. You also had people discussing politics. It was a gathering place for people to discuss and think about things.

STAMBERG: And what happened to that cafe?

Ms. PACHACHI: The cafe was on a street called Mutanabbi Street. Mutanabbi was a very famous poet, and Mutanabbi Street was a street of bookshops. Well, what happened was in March, 2007, a very big suicide car bomb destroyed the street and destroyed the cafe in it, and this was at the heart - I mean, this street was at the heart of old Baghdad.

STAMBERG: Well, there's someone in the documentary film who so eloquently describes the impact of this loss.

(Soundbite of film, "A Candle for the Shabandar Cafe")

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

STAMBERG: What is it that he's saying?

Ms. PACHACHI: Well, what he's saying is that this bomb didn't only target people, it targeted culture in a much wider sense of the word. He says that no development and no civilization in Iraq is possible without culture, and the culture comes from here. So it's a huge blow against Iraqi identity and intellectual history and history.

STAMBERG: The film was made by a young man named Emad, Emad?

Ms. PACHACHI: Yes, the young man who made the film was called Emad Ali.

STAMBERG: And what happened to him?

Ms. PACHACHI: His initial idea was to make a film about this cafe and the history of the cafe, and he interviewed many people, and he went over a period of time and so forth.

STAMBERG: So you see the cafe functioning, you see it with its patrons.

Ms. PACHACHI: Absolutely.

STAMBERG: You see them sitting and reading or talking, intensely conversing.

Ms. PACHACHI: Exactly, and he started to shoot in the late summer and fall, actually, of 2006, and in December of that year his house was hit by a mortar accidentally, set the house aflame and killed his father and his wife, and he had burns all over him, and he was in hospital for a couple of weeks, but he survived, but in a terrible emotional and psychological state, obviously, with these great losses, and he just stopped doing anything.

Then in March, the cafe and Mutanabbi Street were blown up, and he decided he needed to do this epilogue to the film, and so he went and picked up a camera for the first time in months, and he shot some wonderful material, which is also, which is cut into the film.

As he was walking away from shooting one day, he was grabbed by two men, and he ran away, but they shot him in the leg, and he fell on the pavement and bled. So that is what happened to him, and he survived.

STAMBERG: Well, all of these young student filmmakers worked under the most dangerous conditions of the films, you know, diary of a young woman who moves from her home in Kirkuk to Baghdad to go to school, another about a Baghdad taxi driver who describes what the traffic has become like and what the danger is like in Baghdad, the need to buy gas on the black market, if you can find it.

Working under these terribly dangerous conditions, these filmmakers, why is it important for there to be films like this and for them to be the ones who are making it?

Ms. PACHACHI: I think it's important for films like this to be made because this extraordinary time in Iraqi history needs to be documented in terms of people's understanding of what happens as a result of policies in various parts of the world.

It's unspeakable what Iraqis have been through, I mean, 35 years of dictatorship, almost continuous war for something like 25 years, murderous sanctions for 13 years that really tore the fabric of that society to shreds, then, you know, another war and a military occupation without end and extreme explosion of kind of random and stupefying violence.

The world is literally being unmade in front of their eyes, and I think that in its long history, there's been a tremendous amount of creative production in Iraq, and its long history has always been an enormous amount of destruction, as well.

And I think the two things have gone hand in hand, and the people have found that making things, you know, painting a picture, writing a poem, making a film these days, there's a kind of sense of - well, I hate the word empowerment because it's been very overused, and it's smaltzy, I mean.

But there is a sense of agency that you don't have to just sit there passively and just see the world fall to bits around you that actually, even if this is a tiny little student film, you are doing something in the face of all this destruction, and perhaps for people like us, ordinary people, it's the only thing you can do.

STAMBERG: Maysoon Pachachi is the founder of the Independent Film & Television College. Thank you very much.

Ms. PACHACHI: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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