Trying to find beauty in the darkness of Iraq
The hit man burns photos of the past in a copper bowl on his terrace as he waits, quiet as a ghost. His fixer arrives with a bag of groceries and too many jokes.
They cruise the city until they find their target: a professor walking home from work.
He’s punctual, the fixer says with a laugh. The hit man just nods. We’ll come back in a week, the fixer says, that’s how the boss wants it. But the hit man orders him to turn the car around, keep the engine running. He walks past the tomatoes and eggplants in front of a grocery shop. There is a loud bang and a pause of 10 seconds while he watches the man lying there, and then two more shots.
The hit man isn’t real. The character has been plucked from the wreckage of Baghdad’s eight years of occupation and civil war — conjured by writer and director Oday Rasheed in a haunting new film called “Qarantina.”
The title plays on words: evoking both Iraq’s psychological quarantine and the name of a long-demolished army barracks located on a fault line between Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods that became a killing field after 2003.
The hit man belongs to no one, to neither a sect nor a family. As he wanders the Iraqi capital, he ponders how everything has changed and stayed the same, so much so he can’t stand it anymore. Sentences hang in the air, swallowed by the sounds of Baghdad: the hum of helicopters, the reverberations of explosions, the honking of car horns.
His presence is too real in this city, where assassinations occur daily and men of violence lurk around every corner.
Rasheed, 38, wears dark jeans, with a matching black T-shirt and circles under his eyes. He chain-smokes as he talks at an old house on the Tigris River that looks familiar. It was here that Rasheed’s hit man smoked and stared at the Tigris with coldness, but also regret flickering in his brown eyes. And it is here Rasheed dreams about ways to create something beautiful in his damaged hometown.
From his terrace, he looks out at the battered landscape that has changed little since 2003: a gutted brown restaurant tower; the red Defense Ministry building with bullet holes and sniper outposts; the looted telephone exchange.
With its mosaic tiles and airy courtyard, the shaggy eucalyptus trees that shield it from the sun and the breeze off the water, the building speaks of another time. Built in 1913, it has Iraq’s first elevator, hidden in a hallway corner, its gears rusted and the shaft dark and empty.
A tiny black-and-white cat sits in a shady corner of the courtyard. Rasheed jokingly calls her his best critic. He and his wife, Furat, saved the cat from neighbors who were hanging her with a noose.
The building belongs to the Culture Ministry, and Rasheed first came here in the 1990s when he joined an experimental theater group. The troupe put on performances merging scenes from writers such as Henry Miller and the beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg.
Serious filmmaking wasn’t a possibility under Saddam Hussein, whose biggest foray into movies came when he sponsored a 1980 film on his adventures as a revolutionary, “The Long Days,” made by a former James Bond director. Rasheed retreated into the insular world of the theater, as well as making experimental film shorts few would ever see.
Hussein’s fall provided an unexpected opportunity. Rasheed and his friends had rushed to guard an old state theater against looters who rampaged in the days after U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad. The group discovered 21-year-old film stock that was still usable and decided to make a 74-minute documentary-fiction hybrid called “Underexposure” about a director making a movie about life in the crazy days after Hussein’s fall.
“We had gone through the dark exercise of Saddam’s history and we were in the weird moment of occupation,” he said. “The film talked about everything.”
“Underexposure” is one of just four feature-length films made in Iraq, by Iraqis, since 2003. Rasheed has made two of them, and Iraqi emigre Mohammed Daradji, who lives in England, commuted from Europe to make the other two. The films brought together a small and resolute group of artists committed to creating something new after decades of being stifled by dictatorship. At times, they billed themselves as “the survivors.”
In 2005, as Iraq’s security situation deteriorated, Rasheed reluctantly decided he could no longer stay in the country. He was too high-profile after “Underexposure” received international notice, so he fled to Germany with his wife, leaving behind the small community of actors and aspiring cineastes.
In Berlin, he devised his own crash course in cinematic history. He delved into French cinema, studying Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard; he plowed his way through Italian cinema, and then the Swedes with Ingmar Bergman, and at last found his favorite, the Russians — particularly Andrei Tarkovsky, whose use of imagery made him Rasheed’s most beloved director.
“Russian cinema is another world. It is about beauty and information,” he said, admiring the way Tarkovsky could tell his stories through a sense of place and silent action.
He followed the grim news from home. It was unimaginable: 100 dead in a day, car bombs in crowded markets, kidnappings from ministries and corpses dumped in the streets.
He started to research kidnappers, killers and armed groups. He watched videos of killers. He saw how some were smart and articulate. An Iraqi friend with a German wife described being kidnapped and how he watched his abductors kill people in front of him. He said they appeared educated and somehow like him.
During Rasheed’s time of exile, he was devastated by news that three close friends who had dreamed of being artists together were killed in the civil war. One, Daoud, died from 70 gunshots in southwest Baghdad. The wrong place at the wrong time, Rasheed says, and repeats the phrase.
“You go away for a year and they tell you Daoud is dead.”
Rasheed returned to Baghdad in October 2008, with a script in hand for “Qarantina,” looking for the right person to play the hit man. He already knew Asaad Abdul Majeed from the close-knit Baghdad film community.
Majeed’s family was deported to Iran in 1980 at the start of the Iran-Iraq war when Hussein expelled thousands of Shiites of Iranian descent. In December 2003, nine months after the U.S.-led invasion, Majeed finally came home to find his country a shambles. There wasn’t much opportunity for an actor aside from some TV shows that didn’t pay well. He met directors who didn’t value their actors. But he wanted to stay in Baghdad and help cinema here. Iraq was home.
From the moment Rasheed brought the script to the cafe where his circle of artists gossiped and played dominos nightly, Majeed understood the hit man. To prepare, he spent five days alone in the room that would be his in the movie, so he could know the feeling of being cut off from the world.
“He is the creation of war, failure and pain,” said Majeed, 41, expressing compassion for his character. “He was not naturally this way. He is a creature of circumstances.”
Majeed reflected on his own refugee childhood in Tehran and how good people became twisted in exile. In the film, the hit man tries to console those who remembered him another way. “Don’t be hard on yourself,” he tells an old companion as they make tea.
“Not hard on myself,” the man answers. “You’ve ruined yourself. No, you’ve ruined all of us.” The kettle rattles and the steam screams out.
Rasheed filmed in 40 days with a crew of 25 at the house that had been Rasheed’s experimental theater. After the film, the government agreed to lease the house for free to Rasheed and his colleagues if they renovated it. The building now serves as an Iraqi independent film center.
Rasheed still anguishes about the future. He wants to rattle Iraqi society, but he’s had only one showing of “Qarantina” in his birth city, even though it has aired at several international film festivals. “I need $25,000 to release it in Baghdad and make a few prints to show it here,” he said. “People need to be shaken right now. I don’t believe we can solve our problems unless we face each other.”
In “Qarantina,” a woman speaks in the dark to the hit man. He looks back at her, tired. Her words could be said by Rasheed, by those who watch his film, perhaps even by the hit man. They are the words of people who feel trapped by forces beyond their control, but who still dare to hope: “I want to live. I want to work. I want a friend.”
Jaff is a staff writer in The Times’ Baghdad bureau.
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