In this interview, Samir, an Iraqi filmmaker, discusses what has influenced and shaped his aesthetic, spanning from various film techniques to the shifting terrains of Middle East politics. During the interview, Jadaliyya co-editor Sinan Antoon asks Samir to reflect on history and memory in Iraq, examining the ways in which these themes have contributed to representations of Iraq and its diaspora. Samir`s latest film, Iraqi Odyssey (2014), has been nominated for the Swiss Film Award.
Please find the transcript of the interview below the player.
The interview includes four parts that you can click on separately.
Samir was born in Baghdad and raised in Switzerland. He has directed shorts, telefilms, documentaries, and features, including Babylon 2 (1993), Forget Baghdad (2002), and Snow White (2005). Iraqi Odyssey (2014) is his latest documentary.
Transcribed by Samantha Brotman
Sinan Antoon (SA): I am of course very happy to have this conversation with you because I am one of your biggest fans.
Samir (S): [Laughs] Stop it.
SA: Since [(your first documentary,)] Forget Baghdad. No, I am serious. I wanted to ask you about how you feel, or want you to think out loud about your own style. Because, as I said, if I were to watch this last film, [Iraqi Odyssey,] which I really loved, one would know right away that this is a Samir film. So, I want you just to think out loud a little bit about your own style and where it comes from, perhaps.
S: Oh, where it comes from? It is a long story. I made an apprenticeship as a cameraman in the late 1970s and I learned, really, everything by doing. At that time, everything was really thirty-five millimeters, [unclear (00:01:05)], all that old stuff. Mechanical, chemical stuff, you know. And that was the moment where everything changed to video and electronic, and of course I hated it, you know, because it was simple. You see the video picture and you see the film picture and you say, "Okay, this should be the future, are you not?" But everything which I hate, I have to know. So I started really, I bought the first so-called portable camera—it was huge, like that—with my last money I had, and I started to understand that this is a different way of working, like you have in the same moment where you are taking the picture, you have your own reflection in it. You know, you have your own picture, you see yourself at the same moment. That was unheard [of], something new in film. It did not exist. Only the cameraman had an idea of the picture and he sent it to the laboratory. The next day, maybe, you saw it. So, this new thing was very interesting. And at the same time, the first computers came out. And I understood from my old work, as a [typographer], that this work with creating images and pictures would also one day [come] into images. So, I started to make experiments with that stuff and in a way I felt in love with these new techniques. To make it short, at the end of the 1980s, digitalization came up, and the first editing was possible, which was already possible with sound in the 1980s, was now becoming usual also, and normal, for films. So, I bought the first digital editing system in Switzerland at that time, and made my first documentary with it, where I started to use all these different layers, which the first time you could really even see in the editing, you know? There are several layers built up and down and you could take it and change it and so, this work was really the basic of—or let us say, the end of—both worlds: film and video came together in digital. And, to me, it seemed natural that I should go this way. After that first film, documentary, digital documentary, which came up like a bomb. I remember, at a huge international documentary festival in Amsterdam. I was attacked on a panel that I am not really a [documentarian] and I am not using, really, the [documentarian] style, and I should not use that because this is against all odds of making documentary films, and so on. It was a nice experience, though (laughs). I continued to work on that.
SA: But you think that even now there is still some resistance to this type of style on the part of some commissioning editors or other?
S: Yeah, the TV stations, which are of course very important for financing long documentary features, there is still a kind of distance [from] new approaches. But in the last ten years, everything has changed. First, I mean, with Forget Baghdad, that was my last film which was really well-received, also internationally. So, they could not say anything against the style, because it worked, you know? So, people did not worry about the style, they wanted to see the content. So, they could not. And if they wanted to have me as a director with his own formal language, formalistic language, they had to accept it. And, that came like that. But, as a producer, I know every day that every new style and every new form of story-telling is really, with these old, left-wing, commissioning editors, you will end up in a [unclear (00:06:19)], formalistically, which is unbelievable, really.
SA: I was going to ask about the organic link between Forget Baghdad and between this film. Obviously, in that film, your family narrative and your own history was intersecting with the larger story of these writers and authors. But, what are the continuities with Forget Baghdad and where are the departures in this film? Or is it a continuation or an expansion, if you will?
S: That is a wonderful. It is really an expansion. Because, in the first place, when I started doing Forget Baghdad, I think that was a way to find the story of my land, my family, and the political history, which is when I started to use Jews as Iraqi Arabs, you know, that was the beginning of, I think, the crystallization of what is the meaning of secular politics. Because secular politics was occupied by the nationalist dictators in the whole Arab world. And there [were] beside them these small left-wing people which believed that religion has nothing to do with that. So, I think that was a kind of trying to get into telling the history of the secular position in the Arab world from a new point of view. And I think, for a lot of people that [were] too radical, they said, "Why Jews? Why [unclear (00:08:31)]" And I thought, it is just an example, take Christians take the Sabians, take anyone, gosh, I mean—and at the end I said, okay, even Shi`ites, you know, where I come from, from a family which, [there] was never, never, never in our family a discussion about our religious heritage. Even if we are aware of where we are coming from, but I did not grow up—even my Swiss wife told me that, twenty years ago, when she married me (laughs), that she knew that I was somehow from a Muslim background, but specifically Shi`ite or what, it was not an issue. And after I was so much attacked by some strange people in the Arab world about, "Why are you doing a film about Jews?" I decided, "Okay, I can show you the same story with my family this time." So, you know, next time will be the Christian family, whatever. During the process of research for the other film, I knew already that I [would] do this film about my family.
SA: So, that is when the embryonic stage started for the film, already when you [were] doing Forget Baghdad?
S: Yeah. Honestly. I have to be honest (laughs).
SA: (Laughs.) No, it is important to show the archaeology of Iraq and of the Iraqis and to kind of counter the superficial or dominant idea of what an Iraqi should be, whether an Iraqi Jew or an Iraqi Shi`a. And now that you are saying it, it is equally important now because there is a stereotype about Shi`ism, about how one is a Shi`i in the world. But I will come back to this idea of secular, middle-class history. But, before that, a stereotypical but important question, I would imagine, is, aside from the obvious challenges of tracking everyone all around the world, what time of logistical challenges did you have to go through and confront in making this film? Or other challenges that you want to speak about?
S: Okay. It even started with the old film, making and financing a film in Europe about Iraqi Jewish communists. I mean, you know, everybody was laughing and said, "What? Iraqi Jews? What is that? And they are gay and black, or what?" (Laughs). It was like a joke, you know? So, I knew that I [would] face again problems when I will tell a story of a secular family with a Shi`ite background. But, you know, even in the left-wing-influenced commissioning editors in all these progressive, European cultural TV channels, they are full of stereotypes. So, they could not understand what I am talking about. I think I convinced them with the images. In the beginning, nobody gave me money for the research. So, I put this kind of teaser together. Nowadays it is easy, if you know how to do it, it is easy to do a teaser out of pictures, music, some film excerpts you find on YouTube, whatever. I made fancy stuff of three minutes with a lot of family photos from my aunts and uncles, beautiful world from the 1950s, when they were studying. And these pictures surprised all the European cultural funding. I think that was the input. From then on, I got the support. And the next problem was really, really to find the archives. At first, I was surprised how many pictures my family made. Even super-eight films and so on.
SA: Yeah, me too (laughs).
S: Yeah, wow. Because pictures [were] not really, art was not really a part—except of course poetry, [laughs], shi`r—but music, art, everything, films, were not really serious. So, I was surprised how [many] photos I found from my family, honestly. So, that really gave me a push to do the film. It [has not] even stopped yet. I have finished the film and I have even found more pictures of the family, every day. Maybe I will make a book out of it if they allow me.
SA: I think that would be a great idea. A great companion to the film.
S: Yeah, because, as I told you, the pictures [have] really the biggest impact to get an affection [for] this time. I think I could have written a lot, but—I have written a lot, I have written a lot, I have huge books, dossiers, so-called, to explain the film—but at the end, I believe, really, the pictures convince the donators.
SA: Definitely, because I think what is important is that in the last few decades, because of so many events and ways of looking at Iraq, the world is not aware that there existed a largely secular, middle class. And it is the wars and the dictatorship and the sanctions [that] destroyed this middle class, and scattered it all over the world. So, in a way, what you are doing is kind of, through one family, taking stock of what has been lost and what has been destroyed.
S: And I am sure you can find more of that in this huge diaspora of four or five million people. I mean, you will find more, that is for sure.
SA: Of course. Now, the devil`s advocate. Someone will come and say, "Yes, but this is"—I mean, brings me to this whole issue of nostalgia, which is something that I am interested in as a challenge for those of us who are trying to recapture the past, and who are in the diaspora and not inside, but what would you say to someone who would say—"Yes, but this was the exception"?
S: Yes, like my cousin, what he says, "You know, 1958, the Arab people were always sleeping, for centuries they were just sleeping. And 1958 it was like they were awake in the night, and they went for a pee, and that was 1958. And now they are back sleeping."
S: For centuries (laughs). Yeah, but you know, we love that kind of humor. This is really Iraqi black humor, I would say. But because they are so desperate. They do not believe in anything anymore. And I think if you make a real-life, concrete, if you remember people of a real-life, which happened, it will give them an idea that something like that could happen again. Why should it not? Because the overwhelming history of this dictatorship, of these wars, is so overwhelming that I am really astonished that the Iraqis are [still] having time to make jokes. Every other people will be traumatized. Like we are living in the west and people are traumatized about any little accident. So, I am wondering how these people survived. And they are surviving because of their humor, because this is a kind of escape, and I think also because of the memories. I mean, especially, the older generation. Now, during my work, when I went Najaf and Baghdad and Basra, everywhere, I felt that the young people do not know anything, honestly. Really, I was shocked.
SA: Can you elaborate? You mean they do not know anything about the past?
S: About the past, yeah. The past stops with Saddam, you know? Before Saddam Hussein there is nothing anymore. There is a vague, you know, there are singers, somehow you find them on YouTube. But this is old stuff for old people.
SA: So there is like a collective amnesia.
S: Yeah. That is the word: A collective amnesia, yes. And I was really proud then to understand that this film might help to break this amnesia and bring back these nostalgic memories, maybe. But these are feelings, these are emotions. Film is not about a class analysis.
SA: No, of course, of course. I am just trying to push you, to provoke you.
S: Yeah. You know, Batouta made his wonderful book but this is impossible to get into a film.
SA: No, but you did it well in the film, I thought. I like the fact that you said, "But we realize that others were not living so well." So, at least in your narrative there is always an awareness that this is not all of Iraqis, this is this family, of this class-background.
S: Yeah, I mean, this is something [that] really astonished me. Because, I know very well the European middle classes and they are not really concerned [with] social issues. So, I was really, really, surprised how deeply, deeply concerned the Iraqi middle class was about the social issues.
SA: Maybe they are Marxists.
SA: I think there are other middle-class folks who had different ideological--are we okay?
S: I do not know why it is dark.
SA: Well, as long as you are not dark. That is what matters.
S: Okay, we [still] have the sound.
SA: We have the sound. I mean, we talked about this before the interview, but I think I was going to ask you to kind of elaborate on this. Because there is this collective amnesia and then the price of losing a state is not having an official memory, as problematic as an official memory is. So, now that we have this sectarianization of memory and of culture, the important work that you do—not to over-politicize it—to my mind, is very important because it is chronicling, or writing, in a way, or re-writing, the social history that has disappeared. So, if you agree with that, do you think that—especially post-2003—that Iraqis artists and film makers unconsciously, in a way, have this burden—and I do not want to use the word responsibility, but—the pressure to chronicle this history that is being forgotten.
SA: [Laughs]. What?
S: Yeah, I got this burden.
SA: It is an advantage and a disadvantage.
S: Yeah, but it is difficult, you know? I do not want to tell anyone what he has to do.
SA: No, I am not saying about others, but if you were thirty years younger now, what were the other projects? Let`s assume...
S: (Samir interrupts) No, of course.
SA: This is not a planned question. But if you had the funding, and the time, and the space, what kind of other projects would you do, for example? What do you think has to be made, or what is the priority for?
S: Okay, I think I am really in this kind of middle generation, between the [. . . SA interrupts . . .]
SA: We are still very young, ma sha allah.
S: [Laughs]. I am really obsessed [with] these untold stories of this generation, because I believe we should tell their story, you know? Al-Qitar al-Mawt, the Communist group in the swamps in 1969. I mean, incredible stories. Everybody is talking about Che Guevara, we had our one in Iraq. I mean, all these stories which I grew up with, people doing for other people, they gave their lives for the better future. And, at the same time, I see, of course, also, in my own family and in my own class a big failure. A failure not to have been able to understand politics, really. What really happens. The middle class was so [caught] by one ideology, or being British as [much] as possible, or being a Soviet [laughs]. And that is why I think the story of these guys [who] went with Hazb shou`iin [00:24:16], Al Qai`da, into al-Hur. They wanted to make a political action from the north and from the south. They are the only ones which came from a middle class which thought strategically and tactically in an independent way. This story is not told. So many stories are not told. Honestly, when I was in Najaf, I was so surprised to understand that this city was not only in the hands [of] the clerics in Karballah and Najaf. Even until [now] they are Communists. And most of them were supported by women because they are the only ones which are really covering their problems. And so many little stories you could tell nowadays. I am not sure if there is not really a film-maker scene. You know by one hand how many film-makers there are. And there is really a burden of responsibility on their shoulders. I do not want to tell them what they have to do. But if you ask me, of course I would. One of the younger film-makers asked me, "So why are you talking all about these old stories? Why [don`t] you do anything about the new ones?" I said, "Yeah, but if we do not know the old stories, how [can] we do the new ones?"
S: So, in a way, I hope this film will open up a door into other stories of that kind.
SA: No, I think so many middle-class Iraqis will see their own stories in this story.
S: I notice that it is not only Iraqis.
SA: No, one thinks of Lebanese, of Armenians, and now of Syrians.
SA: Of the global diaspora. The question always is asked: What is the effect of the film on the viewers. But I am interested, because this is such a unique film and all of this, so what were the effects of making this film on you, personally, but also on the characters? Because you told me what is interesting and fascinating is how this is a transformative experience, not just for the viewers but for those who were in the film itself. Because, in a way, one is forced to remember and narrate and remember things that they have never remembered before.
S: I think for some of my family it was too much. It hurt too much, and they do not want to really be part of it.
SA: So some refused to be part of it?
S: Yes. Yes. Some in the first place, some in the middle of shooting, literally (laughs).
SA: Because it was too traumatic to remember everything?
S: Yeah, maybe. You remember the proverb, the old one, if two Iraqis meet each other, everyone thinks the other is one from the amn [(security)]. You know? So, I think this history of non-confidence goes through all families, goes through everyone, and created a kind of fear [of] being public, telling stories. I think this is, you know, if you put a camera here in the United States on the street, people will start telling you their whole life. That was not possible, it was not possible in Iraq. Culturally-wise, it is something strange telling other people your own stories. On the other hand, we have a very rich Arab culture of story telling. So, it was interesting to me to see that. I think one part of my family understood what I wanted to do, even maybe better than I.
SA: How so?
S: They understood that if I will do a good job, I will do a job which is bigger than the story of our family. And, let`s say, the other ones which really grew up in this republic of fear and this fear of surveillance all the time, they did not trust me. They did not want to be a part in the first place or later on in the middle of shooting they decided not to be a part of it. Of course, you can bring a lot of psychological meanings of this. But, in general, I believe that a serious reflection of your own position was not possible during these forty years of oppression. So, maybe it will change the future with a new generation, but in this generation of my uncles and aunts, and even in my generation, it was very difficult to get people in front of cameras telling their own stories, which hurt.
SA: You started thinking of making this film way before the 2003 war, right?
SA: What were the effects of the war and the occupation on how you viewed Iraq or on your work?
S: Honestly, Forget Baghdad came out—I am really bad in timing—I finished the film in 2002 and 2003 the war started. So, everybody thought, "Okay he is talking about the war. No, he is talking about the past. What? He is talking about Iraqis? So why are the Jews in it?" So, and then, after 2003, I thought, "Are you nuts? Doing a film about the past? You should talk about the occupation, about this war, about the dismantling [of] a whole state, a land." I understood, after many years, honestly, how important Forget Baghdad was, even for the Iraqis. After all this incredible, positive feedback I got. I understood that I should continue this work at this time with my family.
I think it was 2005-06/07 when the sectarianism really started to become heavy. I decided, when my Swiss wife started asking me, "What is this all about, Shi`a and Sunni? What is going on here?" She did not understand. I said, "Maybe I should tell the story, that even if I come from a Shi`ite family, that that was never the issue, it was the issue to create." You know, really, I remember when my father told me the story of al-Thawra al-`Ishrin in Najaf and so on. The first thing he told me [was] that there was an attachment of Kurdish rebels which went to the whole north to Najaf to support the Shi`a uprising. That was the thing he told me. It was not that, "We are the Shi`a and we made. . ." And I do not think that he made it [up] because he wanted to tell me. He just told me, "And this one helped us, and that, you know." I had a total different view of Iraq. Like that my grandfather was sitting in the back, in his library, in his maktab, and my uncles had to buy `arak because he wanted to drink with the Jewish and the Sabian notables of the [unclear (00:34:13)], as a judge. So these are the family stories. So, I was never aware. Of course we had so many Christian friends in our family that it was not even a discussion. I only knew that they are Christians because at Christmas we were greeting them, so it was not that that was something special or outstanding, it was just normal. And I hope I can bring that back with that film.
SA: No, I think you do that perfectly well. And I think for those who do not have these types of memories that you and I have, it is important to at least consider that it is not an impossible situation. And that we are not fated to be only sects and nothing more. So, the other thing—I do not know, it is not a well-formed question—but what I really liked so much is, especially in your style, is a kind of fusion of a sense of trying to reclaim a geography because there are all these maps and the atlases and the documentary footage. I cannot put my finger on it yet. Maybe it is an conscious or an unconscious portrayal of this imagined/real Iraq that once existed.
S: Yes, but honestly, I was not aware myself how deeply profound this history of Iraq is. I really believed all these stereotypes that, yeah they were the Kurds and the Shi`a and that is it, you know? But Iraq was, for centuries, in a way a unit. It is obvious if you look on the map.
SA: There [are] rivers.
S: There [are] rivers. And on the top there [are] mountains. I mean, honestly, can you say this is not a land? It is not possible. And then I figured out that in the Ottoman history that there was a whole province, Iraq.
SA: That was ruled by Baghdad, yeah.
S: Yeah, and then the three wilayats were only built two-hundred years later, but even then with these wilayats you had also one unit. It is, come on. Iraq was always, always, always, a [heterogeneous], multi-cultural land. I mean, it is not possible to divide it. It is not possible. Luckily enough, I am living in Switzerland, and Switzerland is the same type of a country. They have also created their own myth and whatever, but at the end they have found their own history only one-hundred-fifty years ago. One-hundred-fifty years is not so long. The history of Iraq is also one-hundred-twenty years ago, of the modern Iraq, when the Ottoman Nuri al-Said and all his gang, with his secret alliance in the—what do you call it?
SA: The Ashraf, the Ottoman army.
S: Ashraf, yeah. The Ottoman army. If you study that, it is obvious it is not the Sykes-Picot [Agreement]. That is a stupid idea that Sykes-Picot created Iraq. It is also a very colonialist story-telling of Iraq. It was much [more] complicated. It was not like only the English were sitting there. You know, I [did] also a lot of research [on] Gertrude Bell because I thought that would be a nice subject for a film now. Werner Herzog stole it.
S: [Laughs]. But I studied well, and it is interesting that she was negotiating four years between all the different factions in Iraq. And it is not because they were able to dictate everything. They had to negotiate. That means there was a subject that wanted to create something out of this structure which was already there. So, I think [more research] should be done [on] that time. Especially on the influence of all parts of the society. Because the Christians were [enthusiastic about] modernism at that time. The Jews were also [enthusiastic]. Interestingly, the Shi`ites [were] not very interested in Modernism. But on the other hand, they were the supportive of the anti-colonial fights. But if you look at the whole picture, you see that each of them belongs to the other. When the state was created, 1929, 1921 with the new King, he [took] his distance to the colonial powers, Faisal the First, because of the uprising. But, interestingly enough, he was not taking directly the side of the colonial powers. I think the whole story of Iraq should be really told also from much more a real POV, as we say in cinema, the point of view of the ones who were really looking on the colonial powers. Now, even [if] the reception in the middle class is always also very much for [unclear (00:41:08)] point of view. I think modern anthropology and cultural study put much more look on what the people wanted at that time.
SA: The subjects themselves.
S: The subjects themselves, yeah. And that we are still missing. I think you are doing good work.
SA: [unclear (00:41:37)] Allah
SA: But I was going to ask you about your next documentary project.
S: Oh, each of these documentaries cost me a lifetime.
SA: Ten years?
S: Yes, each of them. The first, Babel II was the name in Switzerland, about migration kids, including me, cost me ten years. And Forget Baghdad ten years, and that one ten years. Honestly, these kind of documentaries cost, really, they are so intensive.
SA: I imagine.
S: Much more than every fiction film. So, I am very glad that I can from time to time escape into fiction.
SA: Are you willing to say something about your fiction project, or is it to early?
S: No, I would really, really love to make a spin of all these three [documentary] films in a migrant story which would be very, very close to the contemporary problems of Iraq. Which I would love to call Qahwa Abu Nawas, Coffee Abu Nawas, and would play with sectarianism, modernism, enlightenment, religion, and [. . . SA interrupts . . .]
SA: Is the script done for this film?
S: Yes, I have finished it.
SA: That is great.
S: I am ready to go. But fiction films are even more difficult to finance.
SA: That is a very good teaser already.