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The Rise of Iraqi Cinema and How We Can Support It

The name Hanging Gardens is known around the world - synonymous with the ancient wonders prescribed on a classical Greek List that has transcended down into Western consciousness. It has inspired painters from Europe for centuries, reimagined in different concentric circles, or like a stepped pyramid. It fits conveniently around the mythologised Babylon strengthening its hold on other cultures through is association with Alexander and the Bible. But what if that didn't matter - what other stories exist? Where are the local stories? Why are we not hearing them? What if the Hanging Gardens was something completely different?

Even in Arabic, the Hanging Gardens translates differently - Jana'in Muallaka - The Hanging Heavens. Now, the concept exists not necessarily in a garden but could be anywhere, more of a paradise. What kind of paradise though? A green, luscious, palm filled space filled with grape vines, or the spiritual afterlife? Or in a rubbish dump on the edge of Baghdad, a satirical interpretation of a global motif of beauty.

This was the vision of The Hanging Gardens for Director Ahmed Daradji. Working with Ishtar Iraq Film Production, one of The Station Foundation's longest residents, under the lead of Huda Kadhimi, the Hanging Gardens has become an international success story an a symbol of the potential for the Creative Industries in Iraq. It marks a time where the world wants to listen to Iraqi stories and perhaps the overused 'Iraqi War' references have reached their limit. Why must American or European film and television be controlling the narrative of Iraqi people - quite simply, because we need to invest in homegrown cinema.

The environment in which to make films is not the most conducive, which makes the runaway success of The Hanging Gardens, even more monumental. Once you've navigated the logistical side of sourcing high quality equipment, acquired the relevant permits, dealt with non governmental authorities, you also need to talk about financing. The Ishtar Film team missed out on nominations at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022 due to the money required for the final stage of editing which sums up the challenges. Access to finance for film is incredibly difficult in Iraq, with global economic slowdown, independent film makers around the world are feeling the bite, and competition for grants is becoming greater. Film Funds from local governments have huge potential to support domestic film production, leading to greater international connectivity. The case of Saudi Arabia is just one recent regional example that is taking off, with the Ministry of Culture seeing the value of culture not only as a source of sustainable income as a country seeks to diversify its economy, but also as a tool for soft power. Iraq has offered grants to film-makers in the past but the amount does not have a massive impact in terms of a film's financing. Supporting arts and culture is quite simply a winning combination on a global stage and a positive step for countries seeking to build relationships around the world. The time is now for the Iraqi government to consider this approach and facilitate more cultural exchange with countries beyond those it borders, we need to advocate at all levels to promote the understanding that cultural output has the power to build investment.

The power of cinema's ability to influence is clear. It highlights social issues to global audiences, and through local storytelling, emphasises the reality on the ground rather than one-sided narratives constructed through media and pre-existing stereotypes. 'Hanging Gardens' addresses a number of issues and exposes the reality of childhood and education, creating livelihoods to survive in post conflict zones, the underrepresented role of women in society, the blurred lines of ethics in a pragmatic desire to do the best you can. These are far more real situations than a workshop for 20 people on gender empowerment in an office environment with a coffee break thrown in or painting t-walls with flowers promoting environmentalism on school routes. The absence of women on the screen is strengthened further by the number of women who took leads in the production of the movie, who have taken incredible personal sacrifices to ensure that the story is told - Huda Al Kadhimi is our hero of the future of Iraqi cinema. Imagine the power of that movie being able to bring conversations to thousands of people, accompanied by other support programmes - the effect could be magnified massively, and reach deeper into society than a smaller connected community. We need think about new ways of engagement.

In 2021 and 2022, The Station through the support of the EU and UNESCO Iraq ran a programme that was designed to build the capacity of creatives in Mosul. One of those branches was to train young film-makers. Where it was different, and succeeded, was by using Ishtar Film as the trainers enabled the Mosul participants to work with a private sector company which helped facilitate future work with the individuals, as well as improve their networking opportunities. This has led to the foundation of the production company '24 Frames' who are now producing their own films and gaining support from international projects such as the London Based 'Habibi Collective. Their next film is centred around the last cinema in Mosul and the efforts of the community to keep it alive, itself highlighting the challenges of Iraqi cinema. The outcome of the project brought together people from different backgrounds which helped build bonds that may not have been usually necessary, and the behind the scenes film that was produced was heartwarming in every respect - organic social cohesion at its best rather than workshops that tick a box.

Recently Shahad Al Taee came 2nd place with her pitch for Innana for Documentaries at the Raidaat (A female entreprenurship programme funded by Zain Iraq and the French Embassy in Iraq) Competition in Baghdad and has embarked on her journey into documentary film making after previous collaboration with Ishtar Film and her own documentary making with international companies. Shahad also believes in giving back to the community so that they can follow their aspirations by conducting workshops in film-making. Shahad is not alone in trying to empower local film makers - Mohammed Al Ghadhban, a Baghdad based film maker and founder of Rola Film Production, recently established 'Al Dar Organisation for Arts and Culture' to help nurture future film makers whilst simultaneously seen regional success with his own films. These film makers believe that the future lies in local talent, which in turn will feed into the private sector landscape - there are job opportunities to be made!

It was recently announced that for a second consecutive year, an Iraqi film will be shown at the Venice Film Festival, "She was Not Alone" by Hussein Al-Asadi. This short film centres on a woman's life as she lives in the Marshlands without conforming to traditional Iraqi expectations of marriage. The marshlands has proven a popular destination for film-makers, Ali Toffan directing a "The Blind Ferryman" is currently in production and centred on personal stories infused with local myths. With the impact of climate change and water politics becoming increasingly obvious on the UNESCO World Heritage site, films highlight the opportunity to raise awareness to key issues. The river system of Iraq was essential in establishing cities, and universal heritage was built on its banks - a theme explored by Sherko Abbas' "Encounters on The Tigris."

With huge audience potential in Iraq, and well equipped cinemas in major cities, the theoretical potential for generating income is high. Increased access to streaming services in Iraq, enabled by a greater uptake in e-payment services, will in turn demand local content that can fuel the sector sustainably, and connect Iraq to the rest of the world. Copyright laws theoretically exist, intellectual property rights too but neither have the infrastructure to uphold them. Without an enforced copyright policy, creativity will continue to stagnate as copies of copies flood the market, devaluing the work of creatives. At Creative Iraq and at The Station Foundation for Entrepreneurship, we have heard countless tales of intellectual property being stolen - blatant messages to artists on social media asking if they can steal their designs to sell lower quality reproductions on the market - "what can we say, they will do it anyway" says one artist. Of course, this also requires audience to be interested in Iraqi cinema and changing the mindset that independent films are worth less than international productions.

Providing accessible and inclusive spaces that foster productivity is also key, even more so if they have equipment. Filmmakers need environments where they can focus without fear or judgement, where they can be connected to other key sectors - business, humanities specialists, marketing, tech developers, and local and international government. The fractured nature of the Iraqi film maker scene, and with so many filmmakers in the diaspora now, means they need space to meet, create, audition, rehearse, make, design, the list goes on. Informal learning spaces are therefore crucial in fostering creative environments, not just for film, but for all creative pathways. The government should increase the engagement with these spaces as they offer services and capacity that current educational institutions can not - supporting their work for a local level will strengthen the value chain, and have a greater output through shared resources.

As stakeholders, whether we are directly operating in the sphere of creative industries, job creation and development, civil society and reconciliation, or wider humanitarian sectors. we need to consider the domestic film sector as a viable and valuable platform for development and truly nurture the overused, but usually unrealised, concept of localisation. Empower the creative sector to build ripples of positive social change through policy advocacy, access to finance, skills development, and private sector investment. With a more diverse representation of films from local storytellers, there is the opportunity to change stereotypes, re-write the balance of perspective, and promote Iraq on a global stage as a destination for tourism, innovation, and creativity.

Creative Iraq had joined forces with The Station and Ishtar Film Production to begin planning for the creation of a new film hub in Mosul as part if its revive Mosul campaign. All three partners believe in the power of film as a source of expression, and empowerment, when stories are told by Iraqis, not when internationals use Iraq or Iraqis in their stories - this creates nothing but the continuation of negative stereotypes. Cultural stakeholders in Iraq need to come together to discuss a collective strategy on how to support this. Creative Iraq, and its partners, is always happy to help connect people who are interested in the sector until we can all sit and discuss a long term strategy for the film industry. Check out the video below to see how young creatives in Mosul are using their past to build their future from opportunities made possible by institutions such as The Station, Ishtar Film, and Creative Iraq Consulting and how informal and innovation hubs are building a sustainable, tangible, creative sector.

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