Amid danger and chaos, helmers tell tales

There will be a movie premiere in Baghdad this month with many of the requisite trappings: a red carpet, the photographers and their flashing lightbulbs, the well-dressed performers. And like any Hollywood function, there are sure to be anxieties.

But the tensions surrounding the debut of “Ahlaam” at the city’s National Theater are far different. In an area where most residents prefer to stay in their homes, the fears concern sectarian violence and insurgent attacks. Extra security will be there, and organizers are closely guarding the exact time and date of the event until the last minute.

“Ahlaam” is a rarity not only because it is one of Baghdad’s few recent premieres, but because it is one of few homegrown features to come out of the country since the invasion six years ago. Its director, Mohamed al-Daradji, was determined to shoot on the streets of Baghdad, often wielding a camera in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. During filming, he was kidnapped twice and shot at both by insurgents and U.S. troops.

His movie, about the lives of locals caught up in warfare, is one of a handful of recent narratives to come out of the Middle East, made in the face of physical dangers, government intervention and plenty of other suspicions.

These filmmakers say that Hollywood’s recent attention to the Middle East — with films such as “Syriana,” “Home of the Brave” and “Jarhead,” as well as the upcoming “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Lions for Lambs” — only scratches the surface of a complicated region, and often from the point of view of U.S. soldiers and diplomats. They want to tell their own story.

“As Iraqi filmmakers, we must stay in our own country and make our films, even with all the dangers,” says al-Daradji. “We must show the Iraqi point of view. You don’t know how important it is for us to tell our stories.”

In the Middle East, the country with the most vibrant film industry is Iran. Elsewhere, production has been spotty, for obvious reasons.

Only a handful of features have emerged from Iraq and war-torn Afghanistan in the past five years, given all the obstacles to financing and production. Over the past decade, both countries saw their film business suffer. During the reign of the Taliban, all TV and filmed entertainment was outlawed. And Iraq’s industry crumbled as the U.N. sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s regime prevented the importation of film stock.

There’s been somewhat of a rebound in the film biz in Israel and Egypt.

Iran, meanwhile, produces 80 features regularly each year. The government, which controls what gets released, has historically offered generous subsidies to the film biz. But local helmers are increasingly looking to Europe for their coin.

Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories have a half-dozen films released each year. Helmers have traditionally received coin from French/Euro satcasters such as Canal Plus and Arte, as well as companies including Hubert Bals Fund and Eurimages.

Rachid Bouchareb, a French filmmaker of Algerian origin, says: “We have only been in the audience while the West gave us (its version). We need to change that. Why is the cameraman always pointing in one direction? We have to show the other side.”

Local audiences are hungry to view hot-button fare. “The Expelled,” a black comedy about a group of misfits sent to the front line to fight the Iraqis, has only been playing a month, but is on track to become the biggest hit ever at the Iranian box office.

Other topical films on tap include:

  • “Al Qaeda” — The $7 million film, from the Egyptian shingle the Good News Group, traces the relationship between Osama Bin Laden and his Egyptian ideologue Ayman Zawahiri. “What people need to realize is that the first victims of Bin Laden were not the West or the Christians. It was us in the Arab world,” says Good News CEO Emad Adeeb. Pic is set to go into production in summer 2008.

  • “Havana File” — The Iranian film deals head-on with the country’s current nuclear crisis. Ali Reza Raizian is one of the few filmmakers who was not afraid to rock the boat with government authorities by dealing with such an emotional issue — or to upset audiences, since the vast majority of Iranians support their country’s right to pursue nuclear energy, if not its weapons program.

  • “Opium War” — The $1.5 million project (a co-production with Korean shingle Cineclick Asia) marks only the second film from Afghanistan since the 2002 fall of the Taliban. Siddiq Barmak’s pic tells the story of two American soldiers lost in Afghanistan who come across a family living in a discarded tank. Says assistant producer David Wahab, “Hopefully this film will be the start of something. We’re developing two more projects about Al Qaeda and terrorism. You know, the normal stories.”

Some American companies are anxious to get into business with Mideast talent. The 2005 Palestinian suicide bomber pic “Paradise Now” took in a relatively modest box office gross of $1 million Stateside for distrib Warner Independent, but it helped open up American studios for Mideast helmers.

Focus Features is preparing a project with “Paradise” helmer Hany Abu-Assad, a look at America’s relationship with its Eastern counterparts, that is set to start lensing in September.

Focus is also working with Lebanese helmer Ziad Doueiri on “The Attack,” about an affluent Palestinian doctor who discovers his wife was involved in a suicide mission.

Doueiri has also held talks with the Weinstein Co. about developing “Man in the Middle,” a dyspeptic look at U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast. Originally written in 2000, Doueiri’s project ended up languishing on the shelf in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

“At the time of 9/11 you couldn’t show the Arab political point of view but now things have changed,” says Doueiri. “Americans are examining their interests and intentions in the region in the aftermath of Iraq. The Mideast is the hottest part of the world right now. We have stories to tell just like everyone else.”

Still, this new interest from Hollywood hasn’t minimized the nightmare of obstacles faced by the region’s helmers.

Security concerns and funding shortages scare investors from backing production in Iraq and Afghanistan; given the ongoing strife, it’s doubtful that will change anytime soon. And despite the abundant subsidies in Iran, many respected helmers like Mani Haghighi are shying away from government-encouraged genres in favor of films about pressing social issues and relationships.

“Usually when an artist gets involved in such films, they are seen as propaganda. Many directors are not interested in this,” says one leading Tehran-based producer who insisted on anonymity. “While that’s one issue, let’s not forget that across the Middle East, filmmakers sometimes do not enjoy that much freedom in expressing their point of view. It can be difficult for them to make anything that’s against their government’s policies.”

Here are overviews of the countries and their filmmaking status.

In Iraq, the optimism that greeted Saddam Hussein’s fall from power is long gone, and many filmmakers have fled to neighboring Jordan or Syria.

Refusing to leave is al-Daradji, who, despite being shot at while filming “Ahlaam,” says, “Iraq is more than just these four provinces you hear about where there are problems. Iraq is made up of 18 provinces, 14 of which are fairly safe.”

In making his project, al-Daradji had to negotiate with the U.S. military and local militia leaders to guarantee his crew’s security, although sometimes that message did not get through. He was kidnapped twice in one day after two rival militias thought he was spying on them on behalf of the U.S. Army. U.S. troops later shot at him on suspicion that he was part of the insurgency.

Al-Daradji is close to finishing post-production on “Shooting in Iraq,” a docu that recounts the nightmarish journey to get “Ahlaam” finished. He is also prepping “Um Hussein,” about a mother in modern-day Iraq searching for her son, an Iraqi soldier imprisoned by Saddam after the 1991 Gulf War, which he intends to shoot in Iraq toward the end of the year.

“One of the problems with the violence is that today there is virtually no Iraqi cinema and film industry,” says al-Daradji. Securing the National Theater was not a problem, he says. But fearing a terrorist attack, he is keeping the exact date of the premiere a secret, and will let people know the day of the event.

With little local film expertise to draw upon, al-Daradji is training 10 students from around the country to make short films in the hope they’ll then be able to work on his feature. It’s an indication of the desire by local filmmakers to add their own voices to the panoply of opinions about life in the troubled country.

“We need to concentrate on the image. It’s one of the main elements to the debate today,” says Oday Rasheed, who helmed Iraq’s first post-Saddam feature with 2003′s “Underexposure.” Rasheed is working on “Heaven’s Road,” a psychological thriller looking at non-Iraqi Arab fighters who decide to join the insurgency against coalition troops.

While Hollywood’s interest in Iraq and the region is intriguing to figures such as Rasheed, ultimately it will be up to Mideast helmers to write their own stories.

“What is a Hollywood film going to show? American soldiers in Iraq. What we really need is to go deeper,” he says.

Lebanon has some half-dozen features in various stages of production. Though still reeling from July’s month-long war with Israel and teetering on the brink of civil war, the country is witnessing a resurgence in production.

Most intriguing is Philippe Aractingi’s “After the Summer Rain.” The helmer, who scored the country’s biggest hit last year with “Bosta,” is in post with the project that follows a Lebanese woman’s hunt for her missing son during the recent war. Parts of it were shot during last year’s hostilities with Israel.

“This was an urgent film. It expresses a need for us to say something about this war,” says Aractingi. “We are on the edge of something huge in this region. This division between an axis of evil and good has hurt us. We have to say it now before we fall over the edge of something terrible.”

The international co-production, budgeted at $1.5 million, is getting coin from London-based Starfield Prods. and France’s Maybe Movies. U.K. distrib Maiden Voyage has bought theatrical rights, with Arte handling pic in France and Arab shingle ART releasing it in the Mideast.

Before the upcoming “Opium War,” Afghanistan had produced only one film since the 2003 fall of the Taliban: Siddiq Barmak’s “Osama,” which took home the 2004 Golden Globe for foreign film. Barmak is set to start lensing on his follow-up this April.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Egypt boasted the world’s third largest film industry (behind Hollywood and Bollywood) and producing up to 80 films per year with the talents of a young Omar Sharif and directors such as Youssef Chahine and Salah Abu Seif.

But cutbacks in government subsidies and an over-reliance on tired comedy formulas brought on a quarter-century long slump, marked by an all-time low in 1997 when only seven features were produced.

But with an uptick in production, including some 40 pics in 2006, audiences are returning to theaters. There are still concerns about censorship and a lack of theaters. More important, satcasters ART and Rotana are pumping coin into film financing, and Good News has been spending big on pics like the 2006 box office champ, “The Yacoubian Building.”

The film business in Israel also is on the upswing. Local auds bought nearly 900,000 tickets during the past year to home-grown product. Shemi Zarhim’s “Aviva, My Love” even outgrossed global box office champ “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”

Central to the resurgence was the introduction in 2000 of a law that boosted coin for domestic features and raised the coffers to the Israeli film fund to $7 million from its original $2.5 million. Israeli helmers are also focusing on international co-productions.

Year’s biggest hit is Joseph Cedar’s war pic “Beaufort,” about the Israeli army’s 2000 withdrawal from south Lebanon after an 18-year occupation.

The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon continues to haunt those on both sides of the border. Israeli helmer Samuel Maoz will start lensing this summer on “Lebanon,” an autobiographical take on an Israeli soldier entering the south of Lebanon for the first time.

“It took me 25 years to come to terms with my experience in Lebanon,” says Maoz.

“I need people to understand why I did what I did. The war last summer only made this story more relevant. There would be times when I was watching the news and thinking that they were filming my script. There are no heroes in war, only a terrifying fear of death.”

The heated stand-off between Iran and the West over the nuclear issue, coupled with U.N. sanctions against Iran and rumors of possible military action, have impacted the Iranian film biz.

Last October, Iranian minister of culture and Islamic guidance Mohammed Hossein Saffar-Harandi underscored the need for more “Sacred Defense” films, the term given to pics that deal with the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. “We will support any move to bring out the realities of the Sacred Defense era,” said Saffar-Harandi.

The result has been an increase in government support and coin for filmmakers dealing with the subject, often seen as a rallying call for nationalists in the face of foreign threats. Some 10 Sacred Defense pics have made their bows in Iran in the past 12 months, nearly double the customary half a dozen that preem each year. Most notable was the B.O. hit “The Expelled.”

But the success of that pic’s director, Massoud Dehnamaki, is proving troubling to indie execs in the country. Long a controversial figure in Iranian politics, Dehnamaki was for years known as a notorious hardline enforcer, taking to the streets to attack student protesters and, in some cases, women for not wearing their Islamic headdresses properly.

“The film’s been a huge hit because it breaks taboos and makes a comedy about the war but I think it’s a double conversion,” says Haghighi. “In the end it doesn’t undermine any of the government’s values or policies.”

While the government’s stated policy has been to assist helmers working in the Sacred Defense genre, Haghighi is one example of the auteur filmmakers in the country struggling to get official shooting permits. His “Canaan,” an urban family drama, was slated to start lensing last winter but has been delayed for four months as Haghighi waited to receive his permit, which still hasn’t been issued.

Click here to see related story: A close-up on six Mideast directors

Filed Under:

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