Imagine Quentin Tarantino directing the celebrated Lebanese film WestBeirut—notfrom the safe distance of a decade of peace, but rather in the middle of the country's civil war. Then add an improvisational script closer to CurbYourEnthusiasmthan to the intricate screenplays of PulpFictionor KillBill(either volume). The result might well be Underexposure,the 2004 Cannes submission directed by a friend of mine, Oday Rasheed.
A first-time filmmaker and Baghdad native, Rasheed is among Iraq's most-promising directors of the post-Saddam era. Semi-autobiographical—with a cast of characters that includes a filmmaker, his artist friends, a dying soldier and an autistic child—Underexposure was shot around insurgent mortars and American patrols.
The first uncensored Iraqi film in 15 years, Rasheed's feature can be viewed as a bookend to Iranian Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi's TurtlesCanFly,which explores the bleak life of refugee children in Iraqi Kurdistan on the eve of the U.S. invasion in 2003. Both films were in fact shot in the period right after the invasion, and together, they reveal the bleakness that is life in Iraq for millions of its citizens, particularly its children. In doing so, they help dismantle both the personal mythology Saddam Hussein constructed using Iraqi cinema during his decades in power and the myths surrounding the liberating impact of the U.S. invasion.
Other films, especially documentaries such as the Iraqi-produced TheDreamsofSparrowsand the American-made AboutBaghdad,focus on similar issues. Yet because dramas such as Underexposureand TurtlesCanFly,which just ended its Irvine engagement, don't have to focus on retelling to the audience specific historical "truths," they are free to reveal the power of art—whether movies or TV—as a vehicle of escape and perhaps even hope. As such, they stand a good chance of competing with the faded porn films that took over Baghdad's cinemas after the invasion, when the security situation meant only men, rather than families or couples on dates, could go to the movies. Certainly they should attract more audiences than such late Saddam-era masterpieces as Saddam:SavioroftheIraqiPeopleand America:EvilNationAlignedwithIsraelandBentonDestroyingtheHonorableNationofIraq,the latter no doubt posing a challenge to Iraqi movie-marquee changers.
The more manageable title Underexposurerefers to several cans of expired film stock that were central to the film's plot—the lead character worries that all his work will be for naught when he develops the film. In reality, too, expired Kodak film was all Rasheed could procure on the post-invasion black market to shoot the film. More symbolically, "underexposure" represents a generation of Iraqis whose exclusion from the processes of global integration has led to the near-destruction of Iraq's artistic culture.
For Rasheed, a "dwindled pool of artists weighed down by old-fashioned aesthetic sensibilities" left his generation with very little to build on besides their sheer talent and determination to break out of the mental prison of dictatorship, war and occupation. But artistic innovation is not so easy in a country where barbers are now assassinated by religious extremists for being too creative in their coiffures.
Indeed, Rasheed has been targeted for being an artist and for spending time in Europe. The assassination of his best friend, a TV announcer, prompted him to quietly return to Baghdad in recent weeks. While some Iraqis are celebrating the recent elections and increasing official trappings of sovereignty, Rasheed can't stay at his own house and will soon join his family in Syria. Such is the surreal confusion that characterizes life in post-Hussein Iraq, where, he laments, artists must choose between "personal safety and artistic freedom and honesty."
But the resulting double vision, one simultaneously "within and above reality," is for Rasheed a necessary ailment for Iraqi artists today. It's the "only way to understand the reality of Iraq. How else can I write about streets where death comes in the dozens and without a reason and everyone kills for entertainment? Baghdad is like Oliver Stone's NaturalBornKillers,but in vivid reality. We have killers who wear masks with the features of humans, who move and eat like humans, but they are not humans."
And in this context, religion and spirituality play an important if potentially dangerous role. "Look, I'm Muslim, Arab and Iraqi," he points out, explaining that you can't separate the three identities in life or art. The job of the artist is clearly to reflect the spiritual core of every person in a way that challenges them to express the most humane and positive sentiments of their religious heritage rather than encouraging the most destructive ones.
Where Rasheed spent a decade working "in the shadows" of Hussein's regime, the disturbingly vivid image of contemporary Iraq brought to life in Underexposureis inspiring a new generation of Iraqi artists hoping for the same international exposure as his ironically titled film.
UCIrvinehistoryprofessorMarkLeVineistheauthorofWhy They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld,2005).