It's Not Oscar Night in Iraq; but Maybe it Should Be
Imagine Quentin Tarentino directing the celebrated Lebanese film "West Beirut" -- not from the safe distance of a decade of peace, but rather in the middle of the country's civil war. Then add an improvisational script closer to "Curb Your Enthusiasm" than to the intricate screenplays of "Pulp Fiction" or "Kill Bill."
The result might well be "Underexposure," the 2004 Cannes submission directed by Rasheed, a first time film-maker and Baghdad native. Semi-autobiographical, with a cast of characters that includes a film maker, his artist friends, a dying soldier, and an autistic child, Rasheed shot the movie (the first uncensored Iraqi film in decades) around insurgent mortars and American patrols.
The movie title refers to several cans of expired film stock that were central to the film's plot -- the lead character worries that all his work will be for naught when he develops the film. In reality too, expired Kodak film was all Rasheed could procure on the post-invasion black market to shoot the film. More symbolically, "underexposure" represents a generation of Iraqis whose exclusion from the processes of global integration has led to the near destruction of Iraq's artistic culture.
For Rasheed, a "dwindled pool of artists weighed down by old-fashioned aesthetic sensibilities" left his generation with very little to build on besides their sheer talent and determination to break out of the mental prison of dictatorship, war and occupation. But artistic innovation is not so easy in a country where barbers are now assassinated by religious extremists for being too creative in their coiffures.
Indeed, while his more famous counterparts are partying in southern California this weekend in celebration of the Oscars, Rasheed is grappling with how to deal with being targeted for being an artist and for spending time in Europe. The assassination of his best friend, a TV announcer, and his wife and father, prompted him quietly to return to Baghdad this week, but while some Iraqis are celebrating the recent elections and increasing official trappings of sovereignty, Rasheed can't stay at his own house, and will soon join his family in Syria. Such is the surreal confusion that characterizes life in post-Hussein Iraq, where, he laments, artists must choose between "personal safety and artistic freedom and honesty."
But the resulting double vision, one simultaneously "within and above reality" (and so sur-real--"sur" meaning "above" in French) is, for Rasheed, a necessary ailment for Iraqi artists today. It's the "only way to understand the reality of Iraq. How else can I write about streets where death comes in the dozens and without a reason, and everyone kills for entertainment. Baghdad is like Oliver Stone's 'Natural born killers,' but in vivid reality. We have killers who wear masks with the features of humans, who move and eat like humans, but they are not humans."
And in this context, religion and spirituality play an important if potentially dangerous role. "Look, I'm Muslim, Arab and Iraqi," he points out, explaining that you can't separate the three identities in life or art. The job of the artist is clearly to take the spiritual core of every person and reflect it back in a way that challenges people to express the most humane and positive sentiments of their religious heritage rather than encouraging the most destructive ones.
Where Rasheed spent a decade working "in the shadows" of Hussein's regime, the disturbingly vivid image of contemporary Iraq brought to life in "Underexposure" is inspiring a new generation of Iraqi artists hoping for the same international exposure as his ironically titled film.
For anyone interested, please go to www.underexposurethemovie.com.
there is a lot of serious news to write about, but for this weekend, enjoy a good movie.
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Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 2/27/2005
i'm glad you liked it. try to get the movie screened where you live. it's worth it, especially if you understand arabic.
Hala Fattah - 2/26/2005
This is a wonderfully empathetic post. It really speaks to the predicament of the Iraqi artist. Freedom at the cost of security. Violence and irrationality shadowing any attempt at self-expression. Natural born killers parading as human beings.That really says it all, doesn't it?