Creating art amid the chaos of war

Filmmakers go to great lengths to tell stories

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DUBAI -- When Iraqi film student Emad Ali set out to make an innocent portrait of Baghdad's Shabandar Cafe, nobody anticipated the destruction that would follow.

Shortly after he began filming, Ali's wife and father were killed in an attack on his house. When a suicide bomb destroyed the legendary literary haunt, Ali returned to complete filming in a move that all but cost him his life.

Such is the price of filmmaking across many war-torn regions of the world where filmmakers regularly take great risks, or sometimes simply can't avoid them, to bring a project home.

"When Emad returned to complete the project, people jumped him from a car and tried to abduct him," said Maysoon Pachachi, the British-Iraqi filmmaker ("Open Shutters Iraq") who taught Ali at the Independent Film & Television College she co-founded in Baghdad. "After they shot him in the leg and chest, he was left in the street for dead. Nobody would dare to come near him for fear of a reprisal."

While he lay in the hospital, friends completed the film, "A Candle for the Shabandar Cafe," which is playing at the Dubai Film Market, and was shown in Dubai this year at the Gulf Film Festival. When the film screened at the Gulf Film Festival, Kasim Abid, the co-founder of Baghdad's Independent Film & Television College, where Ali studied, appealed to DIFF chairman Abudulhamid Juma to help with an operation for Ali. According to Pachachi, Juma arranged for Ali to have an operation and physiotherapy here free of charge. Ali is now on the mend back in Iraq. Also after that screening, Pachachi agreed to pay for medical treatment for Ali in the UAE.

Although Ali's is an extreme case, the further one strays from the relatively safe hub of the Hollywood studios, the more dramatic the stories become as filmmakers strike out to show audiences more than the news channel spin on war and the world.

In March 2002, Danish-Egyptian director Samir Abdallah was on a solidarity mission to plant olive trees in the Palestinian territories when he found himself locked into a Ramallah Hotel with an Israeli tank pointing straight at the front door after the Palestinian uprising, the Intifada, rose up once again.

"We couldn't leave or we would have been shot," Samir said. "Finally, we realized that they weren't going to shoot a bunch of foreign journalists, so we came out cameras shooting in one hand and passports in the other."

Samir and his companions walked straight into the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's besieged compound, where they remained for 30 days.

"Arafat welcomed us with open arms because he knew he was safe if there were Europeans inside," said Samir, who lost 15 pounds for lack of basic supplies. There also was a loss of electricity, which led to Samir's infamous shot of Arafat lit by a candle while he was trapped in the compound, which was broadcast around the world.

Samir recalls a face-off with an Israeli solider during the stay, which became the subject of his film "Chronique d'un Siege -- Ramallah, Avril 2002."

"An Israeli soldier was standing pointing his rifle directly at me," he said. "I stood pointing my camera at him. I didn't move my eye from the viewfinder. I was scared, but I was also enraged and angry and that takes away the fear. I also knew that if he shot at me my while I was filming him, Israel would be finished."

"It is not about being a hero," Samir said. "It is about showing solidarity."

Annemarie Jacir, the first female Palestinian director, took another kind of risk altogether when making her debut feature "Salt of This Sea." The film focuses on the controversial subject of the right to return to Palestine for millions exiled from their homeland. Jacir's film follows a young Brooklyn-born Palestinian who tries to do just that.

Since making the film, Jacir has been denied entry into Israel to return to her own home in Ramallah, despite holding a U.S. passport. Jacir is living in Jordan after five attempts to return home.

"People told me that it was OK to film something about the occupation, but not about the right to return," she said. "Friends have had to bring me things from my apartment, piece by piece."

But Jacir also has experienced physical risk. At 4 o'clock one day, Jacir was driving in Ramallah -- where she shot much of "Salt" -- when seven troopers sprang out of a van and started shooting all around her. A bullet hit her car as she lay on the floor with her sister.

"I thought I was going to die," she said. "You can be going about your daily life here with nothing happening when, all of a sudden, the reality hits you in the face."

And it's not just the directors. In "Open Shutters Iraq," a group of Iraqi women took great risk to photo-document their lives for the project.

Director Pachachi recalled how Eugenie Dolberg, the photographer who initiated the project, was about to give up the idea for lack of funding when she saw two women being shot on the way to work. "On the way home, she saw their blood on the street and determined to carry on no matter what it took," Pachachi said.

Pachachi describes the women's journey to Damascus, where much of the film was shot.

"The glass of the bus window shattered from a nearby bombing as the women traveled," she said. "A plane carrying the other women disappeared into a black hole. Nobody could tell us where it was. Not the authorities -- nobody. It finally arrived."

Pachachi attributes the seemingly insane act of making films under such circumstances to a form of survival.

"In a situation of constant war, you either go into psycho-paralysis or repress and go into reverse," she said. "It is a matter of psychic survival to make a film under those circumstances."

Although Pachachi has taken risks to make her own films -- including as her most recent effort, "Return to the Land of Wonders" -- it was not something she was prepared to ask others to do for the film school.

"We wanted to ask known filmmakers and producers to come over and do courses," she said. "But we couldn't ask them to come and risk their lives. For us, it is different working here when you know you can get out. 'Open Shutters Iraq' is a making of something in the unmaking of the world."