Iraqi film school recruits despite strife

LONDON — How’s this for ambition: Two exiled Iraqi filmmakers decide to go back to the war-torn country after a 30-year absence and set up a school for aspiring Iraqi helmers.

That’s exactly what Kasim Abid and Maysoon Pachachi did when they opened the Independent Film & Television College in Baghdad in 2004, offering free intensive short courses on everything from lighting, sound and editing to documentary and short filmmaking.

The results are already bearing fruit. Abid and Pachachi have spent the last few weeks touring the first three completed films to festivals in Washington, London, Naples, Rotterdam, Qatar and Jordan. What’s more, some of the work has already picked up prizes, with Iraqi helmer Hiba Bassem’s “Baghdad Days” taking home the Silver Award at the Al-Jazeera Intl. Film Festival.

As with anything in Iraq, however, it has been an uphill battle.

“After 13 years of sanctions, two wars, 35 years of no filmmaking outside of government control, we got back to find a film industry that was less than zero,” says Pachachi. “There were no labs, no film stock, no digital equipment.”

Adding to the difficulty was the increasing violence in the capital city.

Two students have had relatives kidnapped, one had a cousin badly injured by a bomb, another lost an uncle in an explosion, and a shop owner in the same building as the school was kidnapped.

“It is very difficult. In Baghdad anything can happen. One student left the country after his uncle and wife were killed,” says Abid.

Funding for the nonprofit college has come from charities and private donations.

Abid and Pachachi have been unable to advertise the college of late due to the rise in Islamist gangs roaming the city. Students find out about its whereabouts through word of mouth and Abid’s own recruiting drives at the city’s universities.

Despite all this, young Iraqis keep turning up outside the college doors, eager to learn the craft of filmmaking.

“Even I don’t know how, but every day they keep coming and concentrating. Sometimes I think, what can a film do in this situation when there’s no meaning to life. But this is a period for Iraq that needs to be recorded for history,” says Abid.

Currently closed for the summer break, the college should — violence permitting — reopen in the fall.

Even if the security situation in the country makes it impossible to continue in Baghdad, the duo plans to take students to neighboring Amman or Damascus so they can continue to learn. “We’re not prepared to give up. We just have to keep going,” says Pachachi.

Elsewhere, filmmaking in Iraq is taking its first tentative steps.

The country has already seen its first post-Saddam Hussein feature, Oday Racheed’s “Under Exposure,” touring film fests around the world, while another full-length pic, Mohamed Al-Daradji’s “Ahlaam,” played at the Seattle Film Festival in May.

Al-Daradji’s own story is even more heart-stopping.

The helmer was kidnapped twice while lensing his pic on the streets of Baghdad and threatened with execution by insurgents.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more