Filming in Iraq: 'It's not just abstract explosions and body parts'

Rather than focusing on the daily violence in Iraq, Kasim Abid made a powerful statement by filming his family in Baghdad.

When Kasim Abid drove over the Iraqi border in the summer of 2003, he had no idea how his family would react to the return of their son. Abid was born into a Baghdad Shia family, but his relatives had in many ways become foreigners to him.

For the past 25 years, Abid had lived the life of an exile: first in Moscow training to be a cameraman, then in London, where he eventually became an established filmmaker.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein's henchmen would often barge into the home of Abid's family, asking why young Kasim was not fighting on the front like his four brothers. His absence from the war meant that a return to Iraq was impossible.

But then, in March 2003, the US-led invasion ousted Saddam's regime. Armed with a few bits of basic filming equipment, Abid and a fellow Iraqi filmmaker, Maysoon Pachachi, headed back to their homeland.

Their original plan had been to set up an independent film school that would teach young Iraqis how to document the historical times in which they were living. But as soon as Abid walked through the wrought-iron gates of his family's east Baghdad home, he knew that there was a film that he, too, needed to make.

"The moment I returned to Iraq, it's a difficult feeling to describe," he says, sipping espresso in a Bloomsbury café in London. "I hadn't seen some of my family members for more than 20 years, and I had this strange feeling of being both close to them but also far away. They felt like a different generation – the way they talked, the experiences they had been through. I knew very quickly that they were ideal characters for a film."

While the cameras of the international news agencies concentrated on the death and destruction they found in Iraq – the anonymous bloody pools left by suicide bombings, the bullet-ridden cars of the latest ambush – Abid turned his lenses away from the streets and on to his own family.

The result is Life After the Fall, a two-and-a-half hour portrayal of one family's attempt to survive in Baghdad as the city descended into anarchy. For Abid, who spent much of his film career shooting the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, filming his countrymen seemed like the natural thing to do.

"By filming ordinary Iraqis, we are able to show the outside world that we're just the same as anyone else," he says. "I wanted to make a film that concentrated on the human experience, one that showed the audience that Iraqis are real people, not abstract explosions and body parts."

Major events, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein, are portrayed through the eyes of one family: whooping with joy as they watch the former dictator's medical examination; desperately calling relatives to make sure that the latest bombing, a distant tower of smoke on the horizon, has not claimed the lives of anyone they know.

"There is no ordinary day in Iraq," says Abid when asked how his family coped with the stress. "Every day is an enormous challenge. Even something like taking your kids to school or buying vegetables at the market can be an extremely dangerous challenge. But we have no choice."

Only when his youngest brother, Ali, is abducted and murdered during the de facto civil war that broke out on Baghdad's streets following the bombing of a Shia holy shrine in Samarra does the violence suddenly come to the Abid family's doorstep.

"You can see in the film how the mood changes from jubilation and optimism to despair, anger and disappointment," he says. "It shows how Iraqis were desperate for a change, but in the end we got more of the same – or perhaps worse."

But despite the tragedy that has befallen Iraq and his family, Abid is determined to continue teaching the next generation of Iraqis the skills he has learnt as a documentary-maker.

His and Maysoon's Independent Film and Television College, based in a dusty office of two rooms up three flights of stairs on a central Baghdad roundabout, has trained more than 70 students in the art of filmmaking. Its students have produced 21 short documentaries, on a variety of day-to-day experiences, such as one family's story of selling their goods before fleeing to Syria, or a day in the life of a Baghdad doctor.

One film tells the story of the poets and artists of Baghdad's Al Mutanabi Street, who used to congregate at the famous Shabbandar Café until militants blew it up last year. Emad Ali, the young director, had just finished filming when the militants struck; he went back to document the bomb's aftermath, where he was shot in the leg and chest. Miraculously, he survived. He has since taken A Candle for the Shabbandar Café to film festivals around the world.

The college is funded through foundation grants and individual donations, in order to keep it independent from any governmental control. Despite the lack of resources and equipment, Abid believes that Iraqis have a duty to keep the cameras rolling.

"There is a Chinese proverb that I am very fond of," he says, finishing off the last drop of espresso. "'Light a candle instead of cursing the dark'. It means you don't change things by just talking about it."

Nick Broomfield introduced Kasim Abid’s 'Life After the Fall' last week at the BRITDOC Festival (www.britdoc.org). He was funded by The Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation which runs BRITDOC.

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