How Two Brits in a Pub Launched a Film Festival in a War Zone

Iraq Film Festival - H 2011

The inaugural British Film Festival in Kurdistani Iraq was held in Erbil, a city with no cinemas.

Phil Hunt was having a few pints with an old mate down his local pub when the idea hit them to organize a British film festival in Kurdish Iraq.

"It was a bit mad but we are both passionate about cinema," Hunt told THR. "And the idea of bringing the art of cinema into a culture that has been decimated, bombed to bits and is now reinventing itself, was just too much to resist."

Hunt, co-founder of Brit film financier Bankside Films, had the connections to the British film industry. His drinking buddy, Chris Bowers, is British Council General in Erbil, the capital city of Kurdish Iraq.

The first person they called was Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the U.K. representative for the Kurdish Regional Government.

"She loved the idea and she told us: bring films with strong female characters and with figures who have to overcome adversity," said Bowers. "So we picked films including The Queen, Made In Dagenheim and Billy Elliot. We're picked The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas, not just because it's a great film, but because, because of the awful atrocities Saddam committed here in Kurdistan, people here have a real sense of identification with the Holocaust."

There were just a few problems. Iraq is, after all, still a war zone. And Erbil, though it has a population of around a million people and a history that stretches back thousands of years, doesn't have any cinemas.

"The lack of movie theaters was a problem," admits Bowers. "For the festival we took over a huge convention center, the Saad Palace, with a 1,800 seat conference room and brought in a U.K. projectionist team to set up a pop-up screen."

Some 2,500 people, including the Kurdish Prime Minister Barham Ahmad Salih, turned out for the inaugural fest and accompanying workshops, which wrapped up Tuesday.

“For most eating popcorn and watching a movie on the big screen was an entirely new experience,” Kurdish government rep Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman told THR. “We hope this is just the beginning of building bridges between Britain and Iraq through the medium of cinema.”

Security issues, Bowers insists, were less of an issue.

"Actually, that's chiefly a problem of the image. Yes this is Iraq but it's the safe part of Iraq. The last civilian deaths from terrorism here were in 2007."

Rahman said there were some surprises. The festival’s biggest draws were not the British blockbusters but two art house films set in Iraq: the drama Son of Babylon and the documentary The First Movie.

“Perhaps because people here have less ‘brainwashing’ when it comes to cinema,” she said. “They haven’t had the onslaught of advertising surrounding a big release. They simply saw what films were running in the festival and picked the stories that interested them.”

While it might seem odd to stage a film festival in a war zone, Mark Cousins, director of The First Movie argued that movies are exactly what Iraq needs now.

"I was brought up in Belfast in the 70s, and took films to Sarajevo during its siege and in both cases I saw how much movies keep the war tide out for a bit," Cousins told THR. "Not because they are escapist but because they are often so beautiful and honest and true, things that war isn’t.  War feels unreal, like a bad dream.  Movies can make people wake up from that bad dream."

For Phil Hunt, the first British Film Festival in Kurdistan is just the beginning. Together with Paul Moody, head of partnerships and diversity at the U.K.’s National Film and Television School, Bankside ran a series of workshops in Kurdistan for young Kurdish filmmakers wanting to tell their stories. Hunt and Moody are currently writing up a joint proposal for the Kurdish government to set up a funding, education and distribution network for local filmmakers, to get Kurdish movies made and seen.

"The goal is in five years that we will be seeing films from Kurdistan directors winning prizes at the top film festivals in the world," said Hunt. "Like what's happened with South American cinema a few years ago. That's what I want to do with Kurdistan."