Cameras on a Roll in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Iraqi director Akram Kamel is racing against the sun to finish shooting a Baghdad street scene for his television miniseries.

Daylight is the only lighting he has. When night falls, actors and crew scramble home to beat curfew and escape the criminals, kidnappers and skittish police that roam the capital’s streets.

“Quiet everybody! Stand by,” shouts Kamel, his eyes locked on a video-monitor framing two actors seated on a restaurant patio. The characters begin to profess their love, in whispers, when two low-flying U.S. military helicopters roar overhead, drowning out their lines. “Cut,” the director barks. The actress rolls her eyes.

The scene resumes, but this time a mosque loudspeaker starts transmitting the afternoon prayers, muffling the dialogue. Minutes later, Baghdad is plunged into another power blackout. Neighborhood generators rumble to life. Kamel surrenders to the cacophony.


“This country is hopeless,” he fumes, running his fingers through thinning gray hair.

Filming on Baghdad’s streets unwittingly produces some form of cinema verite, and directors such as Kamel are confronting the challenges as they try to revive Iraq’s battered entertainment industry.

After decades of government censorship and a two-year U.S. occupation, actors, filmmakers and television producers are embracing new artistic freedoms to tell stories about Iraqis -- before and after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow -- for an increasingly housebound audience.

A dozen new private TV channels are pumping out soap operas, sitcoms, reality shows and dramas, with a distinctly Iraqi flavor. For the first time, Iraqi television is tackling issues of social injustice, government corruption and, on occasion, life under Hussein.

The nation’s first postwar feature-length film is “Underexposure,” which focuses on a lost generation of young artists coping with the U.S. occupation. It is now debuting at international film festivals.

“Departure,” a groundbreaking television serial, which debuted in April, chronicles a gangster family that thrives after the fall of Baghdad by peddling stolen antiquities. Think “Sopranos” with an Iraqi twist. A character on the show lands in jail days before the U.S. invasion after getting drunk and insulting Hussein. It marks the first time that an Iraqi entertainment program has negatively depicted life under the dictator.

“This show expresses what’s inside us,” said Mothana Ahmed, 40, a Baghdad grocery store owner who has been watching the drama unfold each day. “We all know about the crimes of Saddam Hussein, but to see our lives portrayed in an entertainment program is both thrilling and horrifying.”

Perhaps the biggest TV hit is “Caricature,” an irreverent “Saturday Night Live"-style sketch comedy show that tackles topics from electricity outages to kidnappings to lazy government officials. In one skit, an unemployed government worker who lost his job after the war curses former U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III because now his life has been reduced to taking his ailing father-in-law to the bathroom.

Another chronicles a family’s eternal wait in a gas-station line; their children mature into adults and the father’s beard grows to his chest. In another skit, a homely elementary school teacher is flooded with marriage proposals after her government salary jumps from $3 to $200 a month.

The entertainment renaissance is a key cultural benchmark for the nation, experts say.

“Cinema documents a society’s experience. It documents the life of the people, both our aspirations and our suffering,” said Sabah Mehdi Musawi, dean of Baghdad University’s film school.

The new crop of locally made movies and TV shows not only offers a much-needed escape for Iraqis, but can also help them better understand their reality.

“Seeing something on television can bring it closer to the viewer,” said Alaa Dahan, head of Al Sharqiyah, the privately owned satellite channel that airs “Departure” and “Caricature.”

TV viewers say they’re just happy to have a reason to laugh again.

Adnan Dabagh, 60, is a die-hard “Caricature” fan who warns his friends and family not to interrupt him during the show’s daily 7 p.m. airing.

“That’s sacred time for me,” the retired Iraqi army officer said. “Our real life is so bad we need shows like this to poke fun at it in a way everyone can understand.”

The new shows are testing Iraq’s social and religious norms. Comedy shows on the government-owned Al Iraqiya network have featured drunken sheiks and dimwitted police officers, characters that would have never been allowed under the former regime.

Leaders, from President Bush to former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, are routinely mocked. Al Sharqiyah’s gangster miniseries features a scene in which men and women drink and dance together, shocking behavior for Iraqi television, which has not yet shown a kiss.

Some Iraqis feel that the new shows go too far. A religious group recently protested that “Tata Academy” on Al Sumeriya was demeaning toward Iraqi culture. The program, named after tatas, the run-down Indian-made public buses, spoof amateur talent shows, mocking Iraqi singing styles and accents. The show was pulled briefly from the air, but resumed at advertisers’ request.

Iraq’s former minister of electricity, Ayham Samarrai, who frequently finds himself the butt of jokes by a comedy team on Al Iraqiya, complained to the station, one of the actors said.

“He advised us to take it easy on him,” said Nahe Mahdi, a well-known Iraqi comedian. “Of course, that made us want to do it even more. So after that, we stepped up the pressure.”

Before the invasion, Iraq’s film and television industry had been in the doldrums. Production had peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the state-owned Babel Film Co. churned out patriotic epics about Iraq’s supposed military prowess and historical dramas about Hashemite kings admired by Hussein. The dictator’s son, Uday, controlled the main television station, which had to submit scripts and films to government monitors before they aired.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, production ground to a halt under the United Nations embargo. Imports of camera equipment and film-developing chemicals were banned because inspectors feared that they might be used for spying or for making chemical weapons. Iraqi television became a wasteland of reruns from Egypt and other Arab countries.

The U.S.-led invasion in 2003 dealt the final blow. Baghdad University’s film school watched its cinema house burn down after U.S. planes attacked the campus radio station. Looters took what survived the fire, leaving behind only a couple of dusty, hand-cranked editing machines too big to steal.

“Most of our archives, the history of Iraqi film, went up in flames,” said Musawi, the dean, standing before several stacks of rusting round tins that are what’s left of the collection. The school owns a single Sony video camera, which is kept locked in a closet most of the time because no one can figure out how to share it among 200 students.

After the war, sales of satellite dishes -- which were previously illegal -- exploded and Iraqis for the first time had access to programming from across the globe, from Hollywood blockbusters to Italian pornography.

“At first, people were so eager to see the outside world,” said Dahan of Al Sharqiyah, the satellite channel which now only airs Iraqi-produced programming. “A year later they were filled up, and now they want to see something local.”

After the fall of Baghdad, filmmaker Oday Rasheed raced to the Film Ministry to retrieve a movie that censors had deemed too radical. He found burning buildings and some looters hawking expired Kodak 35-millimeter film.

He bought 80 cans and began shooting a movie about a filmmaker and other artists wandering the streets of Baghdad, searching for meaning amid the U.S. occupation.

He persuaded Eastman Kodak Co. to develop the footage for free. The Babel Film Co., which remains shuttered with no budget, lent the young director cameras and other equipment.

He called the film “Underexposure” to reflect the outdated film stock and his generation’s confusion and isolation before and after the war.

“We’re living underexposed lives,” Rasheed said.

“We’re caught in between. It’s easy to move in and out now. But it’s not easy to build something new.”

The film has been shown at festivals in Denmark, China and Germany, but so far he’s been unable to show it to Iraqis because most cinemas remain closed due to security concerns.

In addition, Iraqi filmmakers share a concern of Hollywood’s lesser known producers: They lack the money to develop and distribute movies. The new Iraqi government is saddled with other challenges, and private investment is unlikely given the dim prospects that Iraqis will return to cinemas soon.

“Money. It’s all about money,” said Heider Minathar, an actor-turned-director who is trying to raise $150,000 for an epic about a Hussein-like dictator.

A few TV channels are beginning to earn a profit, executives say, though advertising sales in Iraq have been spotty. “Tata Academy” is one of the money-makers. The controversial show was bought for $18,000 by a satellite channel, which in turn earned $5 million from ads, said Kamel, who produced the show.

Kamel says he’ll drive a harder bargain for his next show, a miniseries underway about twin boys who are reunited after they were separated when one parent fled Hussein’s regime, leaving the other behind.

So far, Kamel and others are discovering that there are limits to their freedom. Mentioning Hussein’s name still is largely taboo on television. Most shows are set in postwar Iraq and make only passing reference to the old regime.

The recent “Departure” serial was the first to depict life before the U.S. invasion, but it starts only 10 days before the war and refers to Hussein as “the leader.”

“Many people are not ready to look back yet,” Dahan said. “We’re not there yet.”

Kamel said he cut a direct reference to Hussein from a script he recently agreed to film.

“Forget about Saddam,” he said. “He’s gone.”



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Times staff writer Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.