From Iraq with love

Soha Hesham , Tuesday 2 Jan 2024

At El Gouna Film Festival, Soha Hesham focused on Iraqi cinema

Transient Happiness
Transient Happiness

 

For many Arabs, the horrific news from Gaza brought to mind the horror visited on Iraq some 20 years before. Both tragedies are testimony to US evil. The last, special round of El Gouna Film Festival (GFF) had special programs for Palestine and Sudan, but it was two Iraqi films that took the most awards — and deservedly. The first was Kurdish filmmaker Sina Muhammad’s Transient Happiness, which won the Best Arab Film and Best Actress (Parwin Rajabi) awards at the Official Competition. The second was Leila Albayaty’s From Abdul to Leila, which won the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema) award at the Documentary Feature Competition.

Transient Happiness is the story of an ageing couple (Saleh Bari and Parwin Rajabi, both non-professional actors playing themselves) who live in a small standalone house surrounded by nature and tend sheep as their only source of income in a beautiful village in Iraqi Kurdistan. With its philosophical depth and spontaneous appeal, it was definitely one of my hit films at El Gouna this year. The film opens with Bari and Rajab looking at the sky while a fighter jet — a rude intrusion on their idyllic surroundings — flies over their heads.

“I firmly subscribe to the belief that stories are not merely creations,” Muhammad told me at El Gouna, explaining his choice of non-professional actors, “but rather pre-existing entities awaiting our discovery; as such, the characters within these narratives already inhabit our world. Our primary task is to unearth these genuine personas from the tapestry of life, enabling them to assume their authentic roles, rather than making them mere actors on a stage. Initially, I meticulously crafted numerous pages delineating the character I envisioned for my film, embarking on an exhaustive quest to identify and cast the ideal individual for this role. I even conducted extensive rehearsals with seasoned actors, striving to mould them into the embodiment of the character I had scripted.

“However, my endeavours bore no fruit until a fortuitous encounter unfolded one day, when I serendipitously crossed paths with the film’s leading lady, engaging in a profound two-hour conversation. In that pivotal moment, it dawned on me that my initial conception had been fundamentally flawed, and that this woman herself embodied the genuine character I sought. A parallel revelation happened with the male character,” he went on, “as one day, while I was on my way to meet the actor I had initially chosen for the role, I inadvertently lost my way and found myself wandering through unfamiliar blocks. In the course of that unintentional detour, I saw a man tending to the trees in front of his residence. In time, the actor I’d chosen declined our collaboration and I recalled the man who was tending to the trees, so without any delays I approached him and I was sure at that moment that he was the right choice for the character. For three years, we shared our journey, and together, we brought the film to life.”

The couple’s house is remote, their routine’s simple. In the morning the man ties a sheep to his motorbike and heads to the market to sell it while the woman washes clothes, feeds the sheep and cleans the house. But the bombs keep falling nearby and the city is destroyed. Pictures of young people — possibly their children — with black ribbons indicating that they died hang on the walls of the house, otherwise unexplained. The pace is slow but the details are gripping. The script, co-written by Muhammad and Tara Qadi, manages to pace the action brilliantly, benefiting from the work of  cinematographers Xaibar Rafiq and Sina Krmanizadah. In 67 minutes, the woman’s struggle to keep everything in order — while the man is only expected to bring in money — is delineated.

“When a woman, a mother, spouse or housewife is caring for everyone while no one cares for her,” Muhammad told me, “and even when she becomes ill no one pays attention to her illness, eventually that woman becomes lonely, even if she is in a large family. In my life I have seen many of my family and my friends’ families’ women whose white hair suddenly appeared and one day they fell ill and remained lonely and no one cared for them. Sometimes a person just needs simple attention from the people they love. This attention may seem trivial, but it changes people’s lives. Sometimes a hug rekindles a person’s passion. This simple idea encouraged me to start making my film and, day after day, I learned a lot about the simple things in our lives.”

In a gentle, romantic closing scene, the woman is on that motorbike for the first time sitting behind her husband on their way to the hospital, and when he asks her to embrace him, it heals her soul and as she holds onto him, she no longer needs to go to hospital.

 

Born in March 1988 in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, Sina Muhammad is a writer, poet, and a filmmaker. A graduate of the University of Human Development (UHD), he comments, “I didn’t study cinema. I learned from my own experience. I believe experience helps you find your way.” He is a TV ad director and has made seven short films and many documentaries, mostly for BBC and National Geographic. He has won prestigious awards including the Golden Prize for Best Short Film Director at the Peace Film Festival in Turkey and, for Transient Happiness, the Best Feature Film award at the Paris Art and Movie Awards and the Best Feature Fiction award at the Amsterdam Kurdish Film Festival.

Based in Sulaymaniyah, Muhammad says it is not always easy to film there: “Because we were shooting the film on the Turkish-Iranian borders where there is a never-ending war, the sound of fighter jets is constantly heard over our heads. Even when we recorded the sound to use it in the film it was there. During shooting, we continuously heard the sound of bombs targeting the residents. One day, a few kilometres away from the spot where we were shooting, a shop was bombed resulting in a number of casualties. This incident had a profound impact on us, especially the lead actor, since the shop owner was his acquaintance. I will never forget the sight of him when he arrived on the set. He was devastated. That scene was not in the script but I thought it should be in the film. The only staged thing about it is the film itself, otherwise everything is real.

“As I didn’t have a sufficient budget to make the film, we were pushed to do all the logistics by ourselves. When we set the key location of the film, which was the house, we planted sunflowers all around it and every day I had to go on a two-hour road trip to water the plants. We did that for eight months and it was really exhausting, especially during the Covid-19 days. After eight months all the sunflower plants flourished and their yellow flowers were blooming. However, a week before shooting my team had to leave due to lack of budget and it took me several days to form a new team. When I returned, I found two elderly villagers had plucked the flowers to prevent them the birds from damaging them. I remember I cried all night. But I always dedicate the film to both those ladies because they were the only people to see our efforts and difficulties and volunteer to help us.”

 

***

As for the musician and filmmaker Leila Albayaty’s From Abdul to Leila, it is a nostalgic self-exploration that Albayaty undertook following a car accident that resulted in a loss of her memory. The young French-Iraqi woman contacts her family to find out who she really is, having decided to film her journey to regain her identity. Eventually there is a reunion at the family house in southern France where Laila starts to unearth details about her father Abdul or Abdullah, about his past and his connection with the Iraqi war, and decides to learn Arabic in order to set his poems to music she composes herself.

The film takes the viewer into an intimate space between the suffering of exile from Iraq and the richness of Iraqi cultural heritage and, against the backdrop of the Iraqi trauma, Leila manages to transform this experience through discovering her roots and learning the language while rediscovering her father Abdul, who was once a poet but has not written for over 50 years, dedicating himself to Iraqi politics instead. Now his daughter’s attempts to sing his poetry make him return to writing poetry for the first time. On the one hand the documentary is about singing and poetry but deeper down it is about a woman who wants to find her lost identity, enfolding a profound insight into the politics of Iraq through one displaced family. The father recounts a lot of details and reveals secrets he was unable to talk about concerning the brutality of the situation in Iraq like when the authorities arrested his colleagues and he thought about buying explosives after the horrors he had seen.

Leila’s self-exploration starts in France but moves to Germany and ends in Cairo, and during those travels she experiences and expresses her fears in an intertwining of personal and national destinies and the complexity of embodying a fraught connection by being half Iraqi and half French. Based in Brussels and Berlin, Albayati’s debut, the short film Vu, had its world premiere at the Berlinale 2009, and received a special mention. Her debut feature was Berlin Telegram (2012), which participated in more than 30 festivals around the world and had its Arab world premiere at the Dubai Film Festival. The film won the TV5 award for Best Francophone Film at the Geneva International Film Festival and the Best Cinematography award at Achtung Berlin. In 2015, she directed Face B, a docu-fiction musical that had its world premiere at the Berlinale Forum Expanded in 2015.

 

 


* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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