In Iraqi Odyssey, film director Samir traces the history of his family from the Iraq of the 1950s to the modern-day country, torn by violence. It is a personal work which also claims to be a weapon against the fundamentalism and sectarianism of the Islamic State.
An Iraqi sentimentalist and a Swiss perfectionist, Samir has created his first documentary in 3D. It is 162 minutes of both family and global history, from the Ottoman era to today, told by those close to the director and scattered around the world.
swissinfo.ch: You show Iraq in black-and-white in the 1950s and 1960s, the women dressed in western clothing and clearly emancipated and happy. But you also show today’s Iraq in colour; above all the red of blood, the black of explosions and the veils of the women. The contrast is staggering.
Samir: That is the most important thing to notice! I think that all this fundamentalism is a war against women, not against westerners. Men who are not well educated have been exploited by conservatism. There is fear of emancipation and equality.
But the challenge was how to speak of this without producing a feminist tract? So I thought of presenting my mother, my aunt and all of these beautiful people in these lovely pictures of former times. In my film, nostalgia serves as a weapon against fundamentalism. It searches the memory to show that it was possible for different religions and cultures to live together in the same country. To remind us that there was respect towards women, their habits and their ways of being women. They didn’t have to hide their beauty. I think that these images are more powerful than any words could be.
swissinfo.ch: These images that you managed to get hold of are indeed a treasure.
S: It was a big surprise. I never imagined that I would be able to find such a large quantity of photos. I thought I would have to go and look in museum archives, libraries, but there is nothing left in Iraq. It is a catastrophe – everything is destroyed. When I contacted the president of the national museum, he told me I could find everything on YouTube. I was shocked. We are talking about the memory of a nation. That is when I understood that I needed these photos not only as a filmmaker, but also as an Arab who wants to reconstruct the history of our country. Even my female cousins who didn’t want me to make this film eventually let me have their photos. They understood that it is not a question of them being on show but rather about reconstructing our country, our history, and about claiming it back from the fundamentalists.
At the end of 2013 I was in Iraq to finish my film. DAESH (an Arabic acronym sometimes used for the Islamic State) had already attacked the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. Six months later, these men entered Mosul. Confusion reigned. I asked myself what I should do. I am a filmmaker, I don’t produce reports for television, radio or anything else – I make films and I am an artist. In the editing room, I looked at all these photos of my family, and when I returned home, I looked at the pictures of DAESH. I realised that I had produced a weapon to fight these idiots.
swissinfo.ch: Is that why they don’t appear in your film?
S: I don’t have to show them. That is the moment when I said, “We will win back our history.” My film is a political instrument.
swissinfo.ch: You say that the word “revolution” has defined the course of your life. You still believe that is the case, despite the chaos in the Arab countries where the revolutions of 2011 still haven’t reached their goals?
S: We won in Tunisia, didn’t we? I was over there recently with this film and I really appreciated what I saw. I really felt the energy of these good people. The conditions are very tough, but they have found a way to negotiate with all elements of society to create a new constitution. Not everything is perfect, but they are on the right route. (Editor’s note: the interview took place before the attack on the Bardo Museum on March 18.)
In Iraq, wars and dictatorships have destroyed civil society and we need a lot of time to rebuild it. But I am optimistic because I know many young people in Baghdad – artists, filmmakers, writers and political activists – who continue to do amazing things because they are not afraid. This is what struck me during my visits to Iraq in recent years. It was different before. When I used to go and visit my family in Iraq a long time ago, I found myself in the same situation as everyone, feeling deep fear at every little policeman on every street corner. Today they have conquered that fear; it is the first step towards liberation. To no longer be afraid of state authorities; to say that the state should be there to serve us.
swissinfo.ch: In your film, the history of Iraq is a to-and-fro between dictatorship and war, and the people want neither the one nor the other. How do you see things turning out?
S: Post-embargo Iraq has changed. It is no longer poor and now has enormous potential, even if there are thieves who are clearly pillaging all its wealth. The people must slowly take back power. This is a long process which is hardly compatible with human impatience, but it will certainly continue. I live in Switzerland. This is a country where it is possible to be confronted with racist and xenophobic behaviour, but it has at its disposal political instruments which help people to fight for their interests and their rights. It is also an example for all the Arab countries. It shows that it is possible to live in a state that is quite diversified, multicultural and multi-faith. When certain people say to me, “You can’t live with the Sunnis”, I answer, “You don’t have to love them but you can live with them. This is normal, and maybe one day they will be your friends.” It is my life and my experience in Switzerland. I have enormous respect for the system the Swiss have created, even if this has taken time.
Samir, the Iraqi from Zurich
Born in 1955 in Baghdad, Iraq, Samir (literally: the storyteller) is one of the best known and most highly acclaimed filmmakers in Switzerland, particularly in German-speaking areas.
He emigrated to Switzerland with his parents in the early 1960s. In the 1970s he did an apprenticeship in typography at the Zurich School of Visual Arts, and then trained as a cameraman. An activist at the core of the radical youth movement, he started making his first films from 1982.
In 1994, he took over the production company Dschoint Ventschr with director Werner Schweizer and producer Karin Koch. Beyond his filmmaking activities, Samir also directs theatre and exhibits his visual artwork regularly.
The innovative nature of his films has drawn the attention of many festivals and won him several awards. His filmography includes more than 40 documentaries and feature films for cinema and television.
Translated from French by Catherine Hickley