Monday,25 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)
Monday,25 March, 2019
Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The artist’s voice

Nahed Nasr met with Iraqi director Samir Gamaleddin

The artist’s voice

Fifteen years after the Middle East premiere of his documentary Forget Baghdad at the Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts (IIFFDS), Samir Gamaleddin — better known as Samir – came back to the same festival, which paid tribute to him in its 20th round. Forget Baghdad which won the IIFFDS Grand Prize in 2002 is the second part in a trilogy that also includes Babylon 2 (1993) and Iraqi Odyssey (2014). The three documentaries explore the Iraqi-Swiss director’s connection to his roots, presenting more questions than answers about the identity of the immigrants torn between past memories and a new world. 

Babylon 2 reflects on the emergence of a new urban culture in Switzerland instigated by the second generation of immigrants and electronic media. Iraqi Odyssey, which won the NETPAC Award at the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival and the Zurich Film Award for the best documentary, traces the immigration of Samir’s family over more than half a century. Forget Baghdad, which also won Zurich Film Award as well as the Locarno International Film Festival Critics Week award, introduces the dilemma of Iraqi Jews in Israel through the tales and memories of well known Iraqi writers and intellectuals who were forced to leave Iraq for Israel during the second half of the 20th century. 

The protagonists are Shimon Ballas, a writer and professor of Arabic studies in Tel Aviv and Paris; Sami Michaelm, a best-selling Israeli author from Haifa; Moshe Houri, a former dealer in real estate; Samir Naqqash, a writer who only publishes in Arabic; and Ella Shohat, a professor of film in New York who has written a standard text on the Israeli film industry. Each recalls his past in Iraq and early life in the new land where they  were considered strangers who needed to be culturally assimilated before they could be accepted. They had to forget Baghdad, but could they? The title of the film is an implicit question which the film answers through comprehensive conversations and archival material. It took seven years to complete, from 1995 to 2002, because of the long research and interviews it needed. 

According to Samir, “Forget Baghdad is not exactly about Jewish Iraqis in Israel, it is more about a typical model that I wanted to speak about.  My concern is those who find themselves belonging nowhere. Those whose original country dismisses them but lives inside their personality while the country to which they move only accepts if they meet its conditions. This is not only the case of Iraqi Jews in Israel. All the characters in Forget Baghdad talk about their past but each of them found his very own way to survive and to resist forgetting what he cannot or is not willing to.”  

Screening Forget Baghdad in Egypt was important: “Forget Baghdad was an essential film in my career. The film screening at the IIFFDS 15 years ago was a courageous step on the part of the festival, which introduced me to the Arab world. Although I’ve made more fiction films than documentaries, I remain best known as a documentary filmmaker because of the trilogy, and in the Arab world I am best known for Forget Baghdad. Nothing compares to winning the grand prize in Egypt, though the film had already received the Critics Week Prize at Locarno. Locarno is Europe where I already live and work but to be credited in an Arab country is another thing for me.”

The artist’s voice

Thirteen years after his first appearance in the Arab world, in 2014, the second part of the trilogy, Iraqi Odyssey, won the NETPAC Award at the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival; it was also screened out of competition at the Cairo International Film Festival that year. This time Samir, whose  family moved to Switzerland in 1961, was on a visit to Baghdad to shoot a part of his latest film before he came to Egypt. Although he wrote and directed over 40 documentaries and fiction films he finds that cinematically exploring his Arab connections and Arab immigrants’ identity issues the most tiring experience in his career. “I am tired,” he says.  “My last visit to Baghdad was exciting but exhausting. Maybe it will take some time before I think of another film on the same theme. Never say never as they say, but at this moment I am really a bit tired.” 

Samir’s latest project, Baghdad in my Shadow, is a long fiction film in which he sums up a number of personal stories about Arab Immigrants he met, reintroducing them through fictional characters. “I have a huge number of stories to tell about dozens of people. Those stories need more than one documentary film to be introduced. I thought fiction could be a way to tell them.” The film takes place mainly at the Abu Nuwas Café in London which is a popular hangout for Iraqi artists and intellectuals there. The main characters in the film represent different religious, political and ethnic backgrounds. Eighty percent of the film is in Arabic, and there are flashbacks shot in Baghdad. 

In his films, especially those dealing with his favourite theme of integration versus assimilation, Samir considers himself a political filmmaker: “When I say ‘political’ I mean it. There are a lot of film directors who like to say I am not political, I am only an artist. But in fact everything is politics. That is why I keep saying it. A director should have a responsibility. If you are a film director you have to have this on your mind. Everything I am doing should have an effect on society.” Surely responsibility should not stand in the way of the artistic side of filmmaking, though. “If the responsibility is bigger than your art,” Samir says, “then it is not a film.”

In addition to his work as a script writer and director, in 1994 Samir co-established the Dschoint Ventschr Film Production company in Switzerland. According to the statement on the company website it “develops, produces and sells films that are primarily concerned with aspects of cross culture, politics and society”. The company produced more than 90 full-length documentary and feature films, many of which have won awards. The latest production of Dschoint Ventschr’s, the animated documentary Chris the Swiss by Anja Kofmel has been selected for the 71st Festival International de Cannes in the category of Semaine de la critique. Another production, the short film Facing Mecca (2017) by Jan-Eric Mack, won the Swiss Film Award for Best Short Film; it also won the Jury Award for Best Short Fiction Film at the 20th Ismailia Film Festival of Documentaries and Shorts.  

Kosmos complex is another cultural project initiated and co-established by Samir. It is a 5,000 sq m art house and cultural centre in Zurich which consists of six art house cinemas, a bookshop with 5,000 books, a music club, a bar and a restaurant. “This project is bigger than all films. My idea was to  create a place where cross-cultural artists and their audience could meet and interact, a place away from the global market and consumer culture.” For Samir this is a necessity because for example in Zürich 80 screens out of 150 screen only mainstream American films. “We need more screens for filmmakers, otherwise where can they show their films?” To preserve its independence the project, which cost Euro 60 million, took seven years to complete. “We did not want the support of the government or the banks. It is a stakeholders’ project where I have the smallest share although I am a board member.  At the beginning I convinced my family and friends to take part, after that we convinced more investors and at the end – well, we have it. It is a place for everyone and it is totally independent.” Samir believes that every society needs the service of artists, even in a developed country like Switzerland.

Regarding Arab society, Samir finds what he calls the new wave of film directors in the Arab countries a source of optimism, “They are so many and they do a great job.  I am very happy to see the young Arab filmmakers willing to make the best of the new technology to express their voice as freely as they can and with high quality.” For Samir filmmaking and art in general is the best way for a generation to deal with the obstacles is facing. “They are smart enough to use storytelling as their voice which they could not express in other ways.”

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