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Films as Catalysts for Social Impact: Al Baseer - The Blind Ferryman

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

Is this film one of the next success stories for Iraqi cinema? We believe so! 'Al Baseer: The Blind Ferryman' invites you to the ancient marshland where a love story is fused with local legends, tinted with Mesopotamian mythology, and is set in a stunning yet threatened landscape.

Speaking with Ali Toffan Al-Fatlawi, director and author of Al-Baseer, you can hear the passion he has for the project. "The idea grew from the stories of my father who used to fish there. The marshland has connection to me and my family, and we should celebrate it." This film is different, shifting from the tendency to use perspectives of the war as an underlying narrative. "In this film, you don't see technology or modern plastics - by not defining the time, we emphasise the timelessness of the local stories and the marshlands themselves." It is as if the film invites you to take Iraqi storytelling out of chronological events, and look back into its ancient past. "The only image that connects to the war is a tank, in which the lead character, Ayub, sits and reflects on the past, not defining which conflict, merely that it is in the past. It is forward looking yet also deeply rooted to the past. This is a love story, not a war film."

Ali reflected in his own childhood as a source of inspiration. "Growing up, my aunts were blind, and I was fascinated by the idea of their perspective of life. How different did they interpret daily life without sight. They were spared the visual reminder of Iraqis killing Iraqis in our recent history." With such inspiration, it is a stark contrast to the beauty of the marshlands.

That beauty of the Marshlands is under threat - an unescapable reality that is the result of mismanagement, regional politics, and the global climate crisis. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2016 due to its biodiversity and Mesopotamian heritage - a site that encompasses the marshes and the ancient cities of Ur, Eridu, and Uruk, the cradle of civilisation. The site has massive universal value, a key moment in the development of global society but is now suffering due to human activity. "When we first arrived for filming, I wanted to cry, the water level was ridiculously low. Iraqi social activists had raised the issue through social media channels and the images when global. That is nothing to what we saw. We saw a surprisingly late rainfall which refilled the water levels but it soon depleted again." Water management at the site remains poor, years of poor planning following the disastrous draining of the marshes during Saddam's Shabaniyya campaign. "We saw many people selling their water buffalo, a key source of their income, and relocating elsewhere. We wanted to make sure our film supported these communities as much as we could."

Responsible and sustainable film making has been a core concept in the project design and implementation. 400 local workers have been employed in this project: rebuilding of the traditional boats, a practice in itself that is disappearing; construction of traditional reed houses that is environmentally sustainable; and the refurbishment of spaces that are to be utilised beyond the duration of the filming, spending $60,000. "We have 50 hours of behind the scenes footage which will form an archive of stories and daily life" Ali says. This approach is a model that has the potential to empower local communities, tell local stories, build skills, and ensure traditional practices can play in a modern world. Funding these initiatives not only result in incredible pieces of cinematography but also build new financial ecosystems.

Financing film through remains difficult. Rampant piracy of films supported by popular platforms had a massive impact on cinema goers, crippling major revenue sources. Film producers are required to source smaller grants and awards from cultural stakeholders to get their project up and running, making the sector incredibly challenging. Most of this support is coming from organisations operating in Europe, 'Al-Baseer' has secured significant support from France and Switzerland. When asked about the role of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Ali offered a surprisingly positive outlook: "With the new budget, increased funds have been made available for film, the Ministry now sees the value in investing in films that will do well internationally." At Creative Iraq, we see this as a positive step in ensuring that quality is taken into account over nepotism, and will help embolden the film sector more generally. The recent success of The 'Hanging Gardens' has proven that Iraqi storytelling can be a spark for global interest, we expect that 'Al-Baseer' will follow suit on a global scale. Other projects such as "Madness and Honey Days" and "She Was Not Alone" are just two examples of exciting projects that are getting on the festival circuit and we will definitely checking in with these teams in the coming weeks!

When talking about the skills sets of Iraqi film-makers, Ali's optimism again shines through. "Organisations such as The Station really helped laid the foundation for many to consider a film career, even if they do not have the academic background. But it needs to be expanded - a comprehensive programme for film makers that takes you from fundamental topics such as script writing to overlooked, yet essential, workshops in fields such as pitching for film festivals. I wanted our filming to embody that, collective learning, promoting management and professional skils - providing practical experience in all aspects: costume design, auditions, sound." Creative Iraq has been lucky enough to see this team grow over time, evolving into a community with unstoppable energy. "It has been intense, but because of that, we built trust between everyone - an open working environment. When we finished, people were crying because of the bonds we built in such a fast paced environment over 45 days.

Why are we excited? Because 'Al Baseer' is another huge step for Iraqi cinema yet also reflects a shift from war narratives, returning to human stories that connect with nature, which promote empathy amongst those who live with different experiences. You can follow the film's progress on Instagram @albaseerfilm and check out the trailer below!

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