Bringing Baghdad stories to the screen

Maysoon Pachachi has for decades been editing, producing and directing films about the Middle East, tackling subjects such as post-occupation Iraq and life in Gaza.

Her most ambitious project to date, a tale of life in Baghdad during the violent nadir of the US occupation in 2006, won last year’s new script prize at the Dubai International Film Festival.

Over tea on the sidelines of the festival, where filmmakers meet potential investors for their projects, Ms Pachachi said the $100,000 prize money would help raise the estimated production budget of $1.1m for Nothing Doing in Baghdad.

London-based Ms Pachachi, whose long career even saw her edit episodes of the classic British TV series Minder, hopes to start production on her first feature as director in the winter.

Nothing Doing in Baghdad’s interlocking tales play out in a mixed-sect residential street in Baghdad, with much of the drama unfurling at homes during curfew.

Some vital scenes will have to be shot on the streets of Baghdad, while a safer city, perhaps Basra, will stand in for the side streets of the capital.

“It’s an exploration of how people lead ordinary lives in this situation and what it takes to create inner resistance to this damage around you,” she says. “You have to build a fragile hope every day, which is broken every night.”

The lead character, single mother Sara, is an author suffering writer’s block in the midst of the daily kidnappings, bombings and executions.

Her best friend, an ageing Christian actress, takes flight in the dead of night for the then-safety of Syria after she receives sectarian death threats. The loss inspires Sara to write once more.

Another neighbour has been suspended with worry since her son was “disappeared” by the regime of Saddam Hussein 15 years previously.

Unable to cope, she checks bulletins, hoping for news of his fate. She finally snaps out of her torment when her daughter gives birth.

The diverse narratives culminate in the finale set during the last week of 2006.

“What people needed was justice, but they got revenge and that creates more violence,” she says.

The web of stories aims to sketch life in the darkest days of the occupation, showing how the Iraqi people, like others in the region and further afield, persevere through such trauma.

“The way we live, we have our own interior lives and personal ambitions, but meanwhile there is an awareness of other people’s stories and the overwhelmingly imposing, evil political reality around us,” she says. “There is no way you can ignore that, it’s a dialectic, the film describes a sense of what it is to be alive in a place like this.”

The script relies heavily on the notes that Irada al-Jabbouri, co-author, took during that bloody period of the US-led occupation. Ms Jabbouri would jot down conversations overheard while taking her kids to school and teaching at the university, sketching a picture of life during those horrors.

“It’s fictionalised and bits of dialogue are edited down, but you couldn’t better this,” says Ms Pachachi.

Brought up in the west, training at the London Film School, one of the first western film inspirations was Gillo Pontecorvo’s seminal Battle of Algiers, depicting the rise of guerrilla warfare during the Algerian war of independence and the subsequent French crushing of the armed revolt.

“I thought – wow – these are people like me on screen in a European film, I felt this is truthful,” she says.

Ms Pachachi is a fan of contemporary Arabic cinema, especially directors such as Egypt’s Ibrahim El Batout, who made the groundbreaking Ain Shams in 2008.

A frequent traveller to Cairo, a city she knows well, she says her time there since the revolution has given her hope about the “extraordinary” freedom of expression emerging from the region’s revolutions, despite the myriad problems surrounding the transition.

Such debate characterised her upbringing. Her father, Adnan Pachachi, Iraq’s elder statesman, encouraged education and debate. Describing her politics as to the left of his social democrat leaning, she says he always encouraged her to develop her own ideas, even when they disagreed.

Mr Pachachi, who acted as Iraqi foreign minister and a representative to the UN, went into exile in 1971, giving Ms Pachachi an international childhood, centred on her home town of London.

Ms Pachachi, who still teaches filmmaking in Baghdad, fears that the future there will remain fraught. “There is immense corruption and people feel like they are moving back to a dictatorship, with a different tone,” she says. “People are living in a sectarian society, which they aren’t use to and it’s getting more entrenched. Iraq really needs an Arab spring.”

Iraq has exchanged “one hell for another”, since the fall of Saddam’s regime, she says.

Years of western sanctions “tore the fabric of society to shreds” only to be replaced by the entrenched sectarianism of today’s Iraq.

She believes it will take generations for the country, and the wider Middle East, to deal with the religious hatred that has surged regionally since the US invasion of Iraq, but she believes that one day Iraq will make it through.

“I am hopeful but not optimistic,’’ she says.

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