FEATURE-After dark years, lights coming back on for Iraqi cinema

Reuters Middle East

BAGHDAD, Nov 14 (Reuters) - The din of power generators,

tangle of jerry-rigged electric wiring and hassle of security

checkpoints are all part of the movie business in Iraq, not to

mention the lack of studio space and dearth of experienced

crews.

But actors like Sadiq Abbas are just happy to get back to

work.

"The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step,"

Abbas said on the set of a short film shot recently in Baghdad.

"Let's take this as the first step for Iraqi cinema."

War and international sanctions have left most of Iraq's

infrastructure and industry - including the movie industry - in

shambles.

Government funding would have provided the jumpstart the

industry needed but it has not been a government priority; the

last full length feature financed by the state was in 1990.

Independent film producers have struggled on their own.

That may be changing.

Nine months after the last U.S. troops left, Iraq's oil

industry is pumping at the highest in decades thanks to

multi-billion contracts with foreign companies. Everyday life is

showing signs of becoming more stable, and the government says

it can now look again to funding the arts.

The ministry of culture has put up $4.7 million through to

next year, enough to fund 21 movies ranging from full-length

features to shorts and documentaries, touching on subjects as

sensitive as Shi'ite and Sunni friendships riven by sectarian

rivalries and the issue of family honour.

"Hopefully we can pull this off, because in Iraqi cinema

history we never produced four films in one year," said Ismail

al-Jubouri, the deputy head of cinema and theater department at

the ministry of culture.

A LONG HISTORY

Iraqi cinema dates back to the 1950s, although production

did not exceed more than a few films a year even then. The

government's cinema department was established in 1959 but

produced only two feature-length films in the next decade along

with a handful of documentaries.

During the 24-year rule of Saddam Hussein from 1979, the

industry mainly served as a propaganda tool for his Baathist

party, which also commissioned art, theatre and music.

Films focused mainly on the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war,

portraying Iraq as the victor in the conflict, which ended in a

stalemate and ceasefire. The film "The Long Days" told Saddam's

life story.

The heyday of the industry came in the 1970s, when the

government established its first theatre, allocated more funds

for full-length movies and attracted Arab filmmakers to help.

The first technicolour film was produced in this period,

"The Head", directed by Faisal al-Yassiri, who is one of those

to have benefited from the government's latest funding.

Iraqi civil servant Mohammed Mahdi, 40, said his mother

recalls going to the cinema to watch mainly Egyptian romances

with their father, leaving the children with their grandmother.

"It was a romantic thing for them to go to the cinema,"

Mahdi said, adding with a laugh that his father always fell

asleep in the middle.

Their dates stopped with the advent of the war, as his

father was in the military, Mahdi said.

"My mother always regretted the dying of Iraqi cinema."

After the U.S.-led coalition invaded in 2003 and toppled

Saddam, movie archives and equipment were looted, and later

sectarian violence drained the country of artistic talent.

Film production slowed to a crawl and the infrastructure of

the industry deteriorated. Laboratories and cameras fell into

disrepair and cinemas were shuttered.

Independent film production houses tried to pick up the

pieces, with some notable successes such as the privately funded

war film, "Son of Babylon", which won a number of international

awards and was selected as Iraq's official entry for the 2011

Academy Awards.

But the return of government funding means a new start for

many local directors, even if the amounts are small by

international standards.

Under the government programme, funding for full-length

movies can reach as high as 1.25 billion dinars ($1.07 million)

while a short film like "A Man's Tear", which featured actor

Abbas in one of the lead roles, can receive up to 74 million

dinars.

Only 40 million dinars was allocated to the film industry

from 2004 to 2012, said Qasim Mohammed Salman, the head of the

ministry's cinema department and executive producer of the 21

films.

The government's backing is appreciated, said Saad Abdullah,

production manager of "A Man's Tear", in which two brothers, one

who stayed in Iraq and one who went abroad and came back

wealthy, become estranged over who will care for their mother.

"I feel they want to support us. They have only given us a

little but we will take what we can get," Abdullah said.

THE BIG PICTURE

Not everyone is impressed, however.

Kasim Abid, who came back to Iraq after 2003 to teach film

production, says the funding initiative is more about scoring

political points than promoting local filmmakers.

"It is for political propaganda, not for culture," Abid

said.

The government's efforts needed to be part of a coordinated,

sustained plan across all the arts, agreed Mufid al-Jazairi, the

chairman of the independent Iraqi Organization to Support

Culture.

"At a time when the private sector is weak, only the

government can play that role," Jazairi said. "We need support

in all cultural fields ... a base to ignite productivity that

can grow over time."

Many filmmakers, artists, musicians and performers also say

they continue to feel the constraints of religious conservatism

in the new Iraq, with Islamist parties and militias trying to

impose their radical view of Islam on the arts.

And even if the film industry is getting a shot in the arm,

venues for showing movies are still scarce. While security is

much improved, many people remain wary of public gatherings.

Salman said of 82 cinemas that used to be open in Iraq, most

of them in Baghdad, no more than five cinemas remain.

Small private cinemas operate in some social clubs. One

local director regularly uses an inflatable screen to give

outdoor screenings of his productions in Baghdad.

But many filmmakers are hopeful Iraqis will eventually come

back to the cinemas.

"It's the audience in the end who decides. They are the

consumers and they are the ones who bring the money to the

cinema by buying tickets," said Raad Mshatat, the director of

"The Silence of the Shepherd", a full-length film.

"I have high hopes Iraqi cinema will come back to life."

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