Billed as the first feature shot in occupied Baghdad, “Underexposure” is a valiant if uneven attempt to resurrect Iraq’s long-dormant film industry. Freshman helmer Oday Rasheed looks at the devastated city through the eyes of a fictional director, but while he successfully depicts the mood of paralyzing uncertainty, his vision remains unfocused. International backing arrived when X Filme viewed raw material and agreed to coproduce; questions linger as to whether project represents a complete version or a work in progress. Considering the subject matter, curiosity will remain high, though Stateside exposure will likely be limited to fest play.
Cameraman Ziyad (Majed Rasheed, helmer’s brother and pic’s producer) provides the opening voiceover narration, setting out the nebulous guidelines for a film project conceived by director Hassan (Samer Qahtan). With a limited quantity of celluloid, 20 years beyond its expiration date (mirroring “Underexposure” itself), the two begin work trying to capture the inescapable yet undefinable qualities of life in Baghdad circa 2003, paralyzed by trauma.
Initially the streets contain more burning detritus than people, contributing to the sense of an underpopulated nightmare. Hassan and his crew interview locals, unsure where their film will take them, but unable to impose form on the structurelessness of life in Baghdad itself. Hassan’s home life with wife Maysoon (Meriam Abbas) is fraught with tension, as his obsession with recording the hell around him conflicts with her neurotic need to stay inside their apartment.
Six months later American soldiers are in control, and while daily activities resume with greater normalcy, Hassan still can’t figure out how to record the uneasy mixture of chaos and fear that grips the city. His interviewees, ranging from the mildly autistic Nasser (Hayder Helo) to the Kurdish Abu Shaker (Yousif Al-Ani) have lost adaptive elasticity, first after years under a dictatorship and now in the throes of a political and social vacuum. With film running out and his wife anxious to discover whether their pre-war lives can be resurrected, Hassan struggles to define the emptiness that overwhelms him and his project.
Helmer Rasheed, who co-scripted with actor Helo, appears to deliberately blur the lines between fact and fiction, using Hassan as his doppelganger.
Shooting amid the rubble, with occasional shots of American servicemen rolling down Baghdad streets in their tanks, Rasheed imposes chapters (“Interview 1”; “Emptiness”), which provide only a disconnected structure — too often it appears Rasheed himself is uncertain how to take this film to the next level, notwithstanding influences from works such as “Hiroshima mon amour.” Throughout, he maintains a fine photographer’s eye for composition, but the assembly fails to elicit raw emotion, and his handling of the actors is mixed.
An occasional yellowish tone appears to be the only sign the film stock used is long past expiration, and tech credits, including sound, are remarkably trouble-free. Pic’s title is meant to refer not only to the celluloid itself but to the sense of isolation felt by Baghdad’s residents after more than a decade under sanctions, but surprisingly little is made of either device.