Iraqi actress and filmmaker Zahraa Ghandour, who stars in the Locarno Festival screener “Baghdad in My Shadow,” by Iraqi-born Swiss filmmaker Samir, is making her first independent feature documentary about one of Iraq’s leading women’s rights advocates.
The film will explore the life of Hanaa Edwar, known as a fearless champion of human rights in Iraq since the 1960s. Edwar, who was forced to flee Iraq during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein after campaigning against human rights abuses, returned in 2003 and today continues her work as co-founder and chair of the Iraqi Al-Amal Association, a human rights organization, and co-founder of the Iraqi Women’s Network.
“I decided that my first independent film should be about something I fully believe in, so I chose a woman that has inspired me for many years,” Ghandour told Variety.
The documentary will focus on Edwar, who is now in her mid-70s, her life and career as a human and women’s rights activist who has campaigned for more inclusion of women in government. The film will shoot in Baghdad, Basra, Kurdistan, Damascus, Beirut, Berlin and Moscow.
“It’s the most exciting thing happening in my life at the moment,” Ghandour said of the project. “What I want to show in the film is Hanaa the woman, because people already know what she’s talking about, but they don’t know who she is. I think it’s very important for Iraqis to know her story, to know her as a person, and of course for the rest of the world.”
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In “Baghdad in My Shadow,” Ghandour plays Amal, an Iraqi woman trying to start a new life in London. The ensemble drama revolves around a group of Iraqi immigrants and once idealistic socialists who regularly meet and work at a local cafe, including Taufiq (Haitham Ali), an aging poet haunted by his past, and young gay IT specialist Muhannad (Waseem Abbas), who is trying but failing to keep his romance a secret.
The film takes on a number of taboos, from homosexuality and women’s rights to the plague of religious extremism ensnaring young lost Muslim men in Europe.
“Definitely homosexuality is the biggest taboo in this film,” Ghandour said. “This thing is just death in Iraq, no other discussion, immediately. It’s not getting any better. … A lot of homosexual people live all their lives hiding it, pretending and being miserable because it’s not an option to be open. Or they just dream of a way out, even if they love their city and they’re successful, they just leave and start from zero.”
The film also highlights the danger of extremist and unscrupulous religious leaders who prey on impressionable young men. “I believe when you’re an immigrant you are more fragile and it’s easy for people to use you.” Immigrants often feel lonely, like an outsider, they face problems of language and other difficulties, Ghandour noted. “And you also have racist people everywhere who make you feel different. These young people are really fragile and can be easily used – and the extremists know that. They are an easy target.”
For Ghandour, “Baghdad in My Shadow” marks her second feature film after Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji’s 2017 drama “The Journey,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and became Iraq’s entry for the Academy Awards’ best foreign-language film.
On her collaboration with “Baghdad in My Shadow” director Samir, Ghandour praised the filmmaker’s openness and willingness to listen. “You often hear stories of directors who are crazy on set and really bossy – you see nothing of that in Samir. This person is always there to listen to you. In the first readings, it’s very important to have a director who listens and not just tells you what to do. He was always open for discussions.
“Baghdad in My Shadow,” which is being sold internationally by Global Screen, is screening out of competition in Locarno.