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[casi] For your attention

Bert Gedin spotted this on the Guardian Unlimited site and thought you should see it.

Note from Bert Gedin:

"Another fine mess you've got me into, Saddam" is out there, too, somewhere, & much else.

To see this story with its related links on the Guardian Unlimited site, go to

No more heroes
The days when Oliver Reed and Saddam Hussein's cousin starred in epic blockbusters are long gone. 
Rory McCarthy on the death of Iraqi cinema
Rory McCarthy
Sunday December 01 2002
The Observer

The golden paint is flaking from the ornate white facade of the al-Zawra cinema, and the crowds in 
Baghdad's busy al-Rashid Street no longer spare the ageing building a glance. Inside, the projector 
rattles noisily and casts its shaky image on a screen above rows of empty, rusting metal seats. 
There is only one man in the audience tonight as an old Egyptian romance draws to a close. In the 
cinema lobby Bassim Muslim, 39, the al-Zawra's faithful caretaker, sweeps the damp carpet and dusts 
off posters advertising old Bollywood hits and Telly Savalas thrillers.

The al-Zawra, which opened at the start of the 20th century, was one of Baghdad's first cinemas, 
and used to draw huge crowds to popular Iraqi films. Now, under the weight of 12 years of crippling 
UN sanctions, the Iraqi cinema industry has collapsed. Not a single new film has been made for a 
decade and audiences at the al-Zawra have disappeared.

"We never get more than one or two people these days," says Muslim. "I suppose the problem is that 
we only show old, ordinary films. People want to see something special, something dramatic. They 
find that in the CDs and videos on sale in the market. We haven't had a new film in here for years."

It wasn't always like this. Iraq once had its own thriving movie industry. It first emerged in the 
early 1940s, built around a handful of private firms supported by film-makers from France, the 
Lebanon and Egypt, which was by then already a pioneer in the film industry in the Arab world. 
Together they produced stories of love in Iraq's villages, often melodramatic romances sweetened 
with singing and dancing.

Today, Iraq's historians of the cinema are dismissive of these early days. "This was entertainment 
for profit. Nothing more. These people were merchants running a business," said Sabaab El Musawi, a 
cinema specialist at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad.

The early films may have been popular and profitable but they clearly run against the socialist 
agenda of Iraq's now-dominant Baathist party. Once the Baathists established themselves in the late 
1960s the cinema industry, like much of the rest of Iraq's rich culture, was quickly swallowed up 
into a state-sanctioned propaganda machine.

Iraqi cinema had already experienced upheavals over the previous decade. In 1958 a military coup 
toppled the British-installed King Faisal, and the new government unleashed a broad and idealistic 
programme of social reform. The cinema industry was nationalised within a year and was quickly 
subsumed into the movement's new Arab nationalist ideals. After the Baath party seized power in 
another coup in 1968, which propelled Saddam Hussein into power, state control intensified.

The cinema industry flourished but the early melodramas were now replaced by state-sanctioned 
histories. "It was the golden period of the cinema in the 1970s. Our films were winning awards 
abroad," says El Musawi. But these were movies with a coherent and often blunt political message. 
"These were the kind of films made to reflect the revolution and developments in ancient and modern 
Iraqi history," he says.

There were films idealising the new social reforms, such as The Experiment, which is set in a 
farming community in 1968. The land is so riddled with salt that only new, collective farms seem to 
offer the farmers the chance of survival. A conflict emerges between wealthy, feudal farmers who 
are reluctant to give up their land and the heroic young who are ready to take up the new 
Soviet-style collective experiment.

Other films took up the class war, making heroes of farmers, workers and fishermen and enemies of 
the merchant classes. The River, set in southern Iraq in 1967, shows a poor fisherman, Mahmud, 
struggling to make a living. Slowly he becomes more politically aware and increasingly critical of 
the middle-class traders profiting from his work. Some offered overtly political messages. Mutawa 
and Bahiya showed an Egyptian peasant suffering at the hands of a repressive government who emerges 
as a champion of justice and equality and who sends a telegram to President Sadat to persuade him 
not to sign the Camp David peace accord.

At the height of this intense social and political campaign, Baghdad recruited Oliver Reed to star 
in one of the classics of the period, The Great Question, which documented the 1920 revolt against 
British rule. Reed played the part of an arrogant British officer murdered by the mob in a 
nationwide revolt now regarded as one of the most important steps towards eventual Iraqi 

It wasn't long before Saddam's own ruthless influence began to be felt and he ordered the 
production of a propagandistic account of his own life. The Long Days features Saddam's cousin, 
Saddam Kamel, who bore an uncanny likeness to the president.

The film was a crucial part of the personal mythology Saddam constructed around his early life, 
particularly his involvement in a 1959 assassination attempt on the life of Abd-al-Karim Qassim, 
the brigadier who led the 1958 coup. Saddam was injured in the gunfight and fled, dressing as a 
bedouin and escaping Baghdad on horseback. According to the film he rode north for four days 
towards his home town of Tikrit and almost drowned swimming across the cold waters of the Tigris to 
freedom. He later relied upon his heroic account of the escape to build up the folklore that 
fuelled his strongman image.

For the actor, Saddam Kamel, a patriotic performance did little to protect him from the Iraqi 
dictator's ever-present temper. For a while Kamel was in favour, and he even married the 
president's daughter Rina. But he gradually turned against Saddam. In 1995 Kamel and his brother, a 
senior general in the Iraqi army and a powerful figure in the regime, defected to Jordan and began 
to reveal secrets of the Iraqi regime. Saddam was infuriated. Within a year he enticed the two back 
to Iraq and days later had them brutally murdered.

By then the Iraqi cinema industry was in a state of collapse. After Saddam invaded Kuwait and the 
United Nations imposed broad sanctions on Iraq in August 1990 the cinema industry quickly went into 
steep decline. New equipment, film stock, and chemicals for film laboratories were forbidden under 
new import rules designed to curb Saddam's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programme. No 
films have been made since and cinemas like the al-Zawra are now empty memories of the past.

But at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad University students continue to study degree courses in 
film-making. They continue to direct their own movies, relying now on video rather than celluloid.

If the Iraqi regime falls, these students will be at the forefront of a new wave of releases. It is 
clear, however, that few intend to produce light-hearted entertainment. The crippling effect of the 
sanctions and years of war with Iran and the west have provided plenty of material for Baghdad's 
aspiring film-makers.

"The embargo has created many problems for us in all aspects of our lives," says Musawi. "But we 
have many ideas about films we could make about the past 10 years to translate what has happened to 
a cinema audience. We are not short of ideas, we just need the opportunity."

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited

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