Iraqi cinema re-emerges, but where are the cinemas?

(AFP)

Shawkat Amin Korki spent more than two decades in exile from his Iraqi homeland, dreaming of the day he could make a film for his long-suffering compatriots. But now that film is finally finished, the Kurdish director says there are no movie theatres left to screen it.

"It had always been my goal to tell a story about my country and to inspire my people," he told AFP in an interview at the Pusan International Film Festival, Asia's largest cinematic event.

"But now there is nowhere to show this film. The cinemas are all destroyed and the people don't want to gather together any more anyway. It is too dangerous."

Korki's latest film "Kick Off" has been short-listed at the South Korean festival among 12 productions vying for the 30,000-dollar "New Currents" award -- the week's main prize to be handed out Friday.

The feature film is based on a true story that emerged from Kirkuk city in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003.

A young boy, who had been among the hundreds taking refuge in the Kurdish city's main soccer stadium, began organizing football matches to help lift the spirits of scared and demoralized locals.

Korki is part of a new generation of Iraqi filmmakers chronicling the tumult that engulfed their country as veteran dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled by the US-led forces.

Another is Mohammed al-Daradji, who is generating much buzz on the foreign festival circuit. Last week, Daradji pleaded for government support for the nascent post-war film industry as one means of ending the culture of violence.

Korki says he is still amazed that "Kick Off" even got made as disputes still divide Kirkuk between Kurds, Arabs and ethnic Turks.

"Kirkuk is an unstable place," he says. "When we were shooting there was not very good security, there were many explosions every day. It meant we worked quickly.

"The film really is about people wanting to play football in a time of war -- of wanting things to be normal in their lives when there is madness around them."

Korki's family had lived for generations in the Zakho province of the Iraqi Kurdistan region and he says they were among the first to move out as Saddam's fearsome sway grew through the mid-1970s.

"I was very young, two years old when my family left in 1975," says the director. "Saddam Hussein's soldiers had been coming to our town and villages and my family could see what was happening, or what was going to happen.

"And when I first came back to Iraqi Kurdistan in 1999 there was nothing there if you wanted to make movies and there were still dangers, so I went back to Iran so I could learn."

Iran is where Korki and his family had found shelter in 1975, and he eventually found work there producing and then directing television series while he bided time until he could return home.

In 2006, Korki made his first film, "Crossing the Dust", about the search for a boy who becomes lost after a battle destroys his town.

But he says he never really had plans to screen that film in Iraq as he had made it with an international audience in mind.

And it was after taking "Crossing the Dust" to the 2006 Tokyo International Film Festival that Korki was able to find the funding for "Kick Off".

"I had support from the Iraqi Kurdistan cultural ministry and they were contacted by Japan's NHK television network who said they wanted to help me," he says.

Korki says he had hoped conditions might be more amenable for the Iraqi film industry by the time he had finished "Kick Off" at the start of this year, but it was not to be.

"In the past five years, movies are being made again -- particularly in Iraqi Kurdistan, because it is more calm and safer there," he says.

"But everyone has the same problem. There are no whole cinemas left. They were either destroyed or closed and there are no projectors.

"But people are starting slowly to build them so we are not without hope."

Baghdad cinemas that once showed international and Arabic films remain shuttered, bar a few matinee screenings of B-grade offerings.

But in one sign of tentative progress, the Iraq National Theatre recently put on its first evening stage show since Saddam's brutal regime was overthrown.

str/jit

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