During the Gulf War in 1991, like most Iraqis in London, I was glued to the TV. I was watching the green anti-aircraft tracer fire in the night sky above Baghdad and the ‘smart’ bombs blowing up the bridges across the Tigris, the river which is the heart and soul of the city.
In all the hours of media coverage, I never saw or heard one ordinary Iraqi person on the screen. It was as if all the firepower was falling on no-one, as if the country, where I had deep roots, and all the people in it, was being erased off the face of the earth. I was in a state of shock. I forgot my name, how old I was, and the simplest of words in English which I have spoken all my life.
I am a London-based filmmaker of Iraqi origin. My response was to make a film of interviews with a wide variety of Iraqi women living in exile in London at that time, interspersed with archive footage. In the end, the film, Iraqi Women, Voices From Exile was a story of the Iraqi state and its people from the 1920s until 1991, told through the experiences of women.
I realised then that making in the face of ‘unmaking’ was a form of resistance. Excluding the voices of those who were on the receiving end of the violence made the killing more acceptable to people in the countries waging the war. In the UK, for example, people were not given a chance to see those who were being killed and displaced in their names as other human beings, just like themselves.
For years, as far as the Western media was concerned, Iraq was just Saddam Hussein. There was little sense of who the Iraqi people were or their culture and history. Iraqi civilians were erased from the Western media during the Gulf War through to the 2003 US-led invasion of the country and its aftermath.
What you never saw or heard were stories of individual people and communities, their aspirations, fears, daily struggles, their sense of humour in the face of destruction, their resilience, their courage, and their solidarity with one another.
The cost of sidelining all this is that people become generalised ‘victims’. But the question is who are these people? Are we like them in some ways? Can we relate to their lives? What would I do in their place? No, we cannot relate to them if we don’t hear their voices and their stories. They are just ‘others’ of some sort.
It was these concerns that made me decide to make my recent fiction feature film, Our River… Our Sky as an ensemble of intersecting individual personal stories unfolding in Baghdad over the last week of 2006, a time of extreme sectarian violence.
My aim was not to focus on the violence on the streets, but rather to engage audiences in the everyday lives of my characters as they negotiate a difficult time of violence and social disintegration.
All the characters in the film are civilians: families, men, women, young people, and children. How do they manage to renew a fragile sense of hope every morning, when the world around them and inside them is shattering? How do parents protect their children? What do they tell them? How do they resist the damage all around and inside them? By telling jokes? Singing songs? Falling in love?
I’ve been surprised by and very grateful to Our River… Our Sky audiences who have said in many discussions after screenings, that they have found themselves thinking: ‘What would I have done if I were in their shoes?’
Sometimes I think of myself as a person who lives on a bridge; I have a view of both sides of the river and my job, as a filmmaker, is to make a connection between people on the two sides, so they can see each other as human beings like themselves – dealing with many of the same problems.
I imagine I will carry on making films about and in the Middle East, although not exclusively so. What will always be important to me is to represent the perspectives and voices of those who are usually sidelined, especially women and young people, who are such a large percentage of the population in the Middle East.
Whether the Western media, which these days often seems to be towing the official government line, will begin to represent the perspectives and voices of civilians in the Middle East, in a balanced way, is an open question. This is something I hope for, but I know it is unlikely, especially in the current conditions. I’m not holding my breath.
Our River.. Our Sky is out now in UK cinemas.
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