Dedicated to the events of 2006 in Iraq, “Our River… Our Sky” – previously known as “Another Day in Baghdad” – shows people who suddenly don’t recognize their own country anymore. Trying to carry on with their normal routines, they are “acting life,” says director Maysoon Pachachi. As the conflict in Afghanistan rages on, the world premiere – in the Sarajevo Film Festival’s Dealing with the Past section – of her first fiction feature seems timely.
“I have been watching the news just like everybody else, trying to make sense of it. Somebody asked me the other day if I planned for my film to come out this way. Obviously, I didn’t know this was going to happen,” she says, describing 2006 as the year of “uncertainty and fear,” starting with an attack on a Shia shrine orchestrated by Al-Qaeda.
“It ignited the most extraordinary violence. People were looking in the mirror, thinking: ‘Is this us? Is this what we are doing?,’” she says, also mentioning Saddam Hussein’s execution, which took place in December that year. But instead of focusing on individual experience, the London-based filmmaker of Iraqi origins wanted to interweave several storylines in her ensemble film set in Baghdad.
“There was this terrible, barbaric violence going on, curfews every night, and in such a situation, you are very aware of living your own story in the context of everybody else’s. You feel like you are a part of some collective experience,” she says.
“I was always interested in that: ‘What is going on with other people?’ I lived in many different places where I had to figure this out because I was a stranger. But also, in the Arab world, stories often have this arabesque structure. One leads to another, and so on. All these traditional tales, which have one hero or a heroine and everyone else is just décor, make me uncomfortable. For me, they are all important.”
Pachachi wanted to show people’s resistance in the film, manifested through small gestures of support and unity.
“Those who haven’t lived through all that just see them as victims. They don’t see that some sort of warmth carries on between people, that they still care for each other. This is one way of survival, of resistance. Of saying: ‘You won’t break us apart. Despite everything, we will remain a family,’” she says.
Also, the ongoing pandemic will most likely help viewers understand certain circumstances a little bit better, adds producer Talal Al-Muhanna.
“The sense of curfew suddenly became an experience that everyone shared globally. These characters, they are mainly in their houses, confined, and maybe now people will start to understand how it really felt,” he says, adding that many stories shown in the film have their real-life counterpart. Starting with co-writer Irada Al-Jubori, a novelist and a poet who, just like the character played by Darina Al Joundi (recently seen also in “The Man Who Sold His Skin”), suddenly couldn’t write anymore.
“When these events started to happen, she thought that everything would just feel like a lie. There was no way of describing what was going on. She would write down small scenes she saw happening in the streets, dialogues she would overhear. She didn’t know if she would ever write again,” adds Pachachi. But Al-Jubori did find her voice again in the end.
“She called me, saying: ‘I wrote something.’ I was so happy for her. During the 1991 Gulf War I was in London and when I was watching the news, I never saw one ordinary Iraqi person on screen. They were absent. The films I have made about Iraq are all about that: there are people there. They have lives and they certainly have voices.”
Produced by Oxymoron Films (U.K.), Les Contes Modernes (France), Neue Mediopolis Filmproduktion (Germany) and Linked Productions (Kuwait), “Our River… Our Sky” was made in coproduction with Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Cinéma (France) and Lightburst Pictures (Germany). The Party Film Sales handles world sales.