Iraqi Women Capture Their Lives On FilmIn Iraqi filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi's new documentary, 12 Iraqi women gather in Syria with a goal: They intend to learn photography, decide what stories to tell, then return to Iraq and tell those stories.
Um Mohammed, one of the workshop's participants, chronicled the destruction of her beloved home city of Basra. She writes, "Nothing is left of it but ruin and destruction, broken bricks, collapsing houses. Everyday, the river shrinks — it's full of garbage."
The Corniche, Shatt Al Arab: "I used to love walking down the Corniche holding the hands of my children and talking to my friends. Today, the Corniche is empty. Any man and woman walking together are asked to prove that they are relatives or husband and wife. Now the place is full of ghosts and the hum of traffic."
A Former Cultural Center: "The last time I visited this building, my husband and I met up with a group of writers and artists. This used to be a busy cultural centre, but today, as everywhere else in Basra, it has been taken over by one of the religious parties ... They put their black flag in the mouth of the dragon, announcing a new kind of death."
The Al Karnak Cinema: "I was five years old when my uncle first took me to the cinema. When I grew up, I'd stop to look at posters of the stars and advertisements for coming films, on my way into work. After the occupation began in 2003, those who wanted to 'approach the Good and distance Evil' ended the 'corrupting' influence of films and demolished my cinema."
Tayaran Square: "The religious men who are running my city, on behalf of God, have destroyed the statues of the city because they say they are haram [forbidden]. They've targeted female sculptures, but left the fish and the men alone. Women's bodies are 'shameful', it seems, even if they are made of brass."
A Former Amusement Park: "Everything in my city has been looted, stolen and burned. The British army has done nothing about it. They just stood by and laughed, calling the thieves and destroyers the Ali Babas of Basra. We visited this ruined piece of land many times when it used to be an amusement park."
Al Hassan Al Basri Cemetery: "Basra's people suffered and died in the Iran-Iraq war ... in the Gulf War ... in the Intifada against Saddam Hussein ... in the bombing during the occupation of the country in 2003 ... and they are still being martyred, but now by terrorist militias, by the British ... This young man is sitting talking to a loved one who has been killed."
By The Al Ashar River: "I loved my city and was proud to be from there; this crossroads of people and cultures, a place of warmth, beauty and elegance, generous-hearted and open to the whole world. Now, everything we loved about the city has been taken from us; it is not the place it was and I feel the bitterness of this loss."
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In a new documentary, 12 Iraqi women gather in Damascus, Syria, with a goal: They intend to learn photography, decide what stories to tell, then return to Iraq and tell those stories with their newfound camera skills.
Open Shutters: Iraq is the latest documentary from filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi. She tells NPR's Guy Raz that it was no easy task finding the women and getting them all to Damascus for the photography workshop.
"It was through a sort of network of acquaintances," she says. She worked with a partner, British photojournalist Eugenie Dolberg, to organize the workshop. Pachachi says she "had to travel up and down the country and convince people's families that it was OK for them to go and spend a month in a house with a lot of other strange people, learning photography."
Pachachi's father, Adnan, was Iraq's foreign minister in the pre-Saddam Hussein era and briefly a member of the Iraqi Governing Council after the U.S. invasion. Yet Pachachi hadn't been back to Iraq in decades when she returned in 2004 to open a film school and make documentaries about life in Iraq.
She says the group of women in Open Shutters was wildly diverse — different ages, different ethnicities, even different religions. But they all had similar stories of loss and grief to tell. At one point, the women made "life maps," big posters illustrating the ups and downs of their lives.
"This was an extraordinary experience for everybody," she says, "because through 35 years of sanctions, war, dictatorship and so forth, nobody really had a chance to speak, really, or to think about the people that they'd lost and what had happened in their lives.
"They had just run from pillar to post, just trying to survive and keep their children alive." The life maps also helped the women learn to write captions for their photos that drew on their experiences.
While the women had much in common, Pachachi says their individuality came through in their final photo projects. One participant, the 6-year-old daughter of one of the organizers, documented her friends playing on the streets of Baghdad. Another woman took photos of her day-to-day struggle to keep her children safe and fed.
A third photographer, Um Mohammed, chronicled the destruction of her beloved home city of Basra. "The photographs are very beautiful," Pachachi says. "They're suffused with this kind of extraordinary light, and it's kind of slightly nostalgic. But it's full of ruin. And her captions are very sharp."