Shooting movies 

in a war zone

How we’ve supported Iraqi cinema - even under fire


“Who is going to fund this crazy filmmaker to shoot a movie in the middle of a war?”

Mohamed Al-Daradji is an Iraqi-Dutch film director born and raised in Iraq. In 1995, he fled to the Netherlands where he started as a camera man and then made many short films and commercials. Bolstered by this success, he decided to return to Iraq to shoot his first feature film. But getting funding proved much more difficult than expected. All 145 applications he sent out were rejected.

Then he came into contact with Hivos, and the ball started rolling. Although we could not fund the entire production, a fruitful collaboration was born. With 10,000 euros in start capital, Al-Daradji was able to start shooting and later put together enough additional funding to finish.

This grant was the most important subsidy in my life.

In 2003 Mohamed Al-Daradji began work on Ahlaam in Baghdad, which he filmed while the Iraq War was still raging. Since no films had been made in Iraq for about ten years because of international sanctions, the Hivos Cultural Fund also helped Mohamed train young Iraqi filmmakers on his set.

Set in pre and post-war Iraq, Ahlaam was screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) in 2005. It earned a spot in the top five of best films voted by the audience.

Bringing film back to Iraq

During the Iraq War, all the cinemas in the country had also been destroyed. That’s why Mohamed, again with support from Hivos, started a project called Mobile Cinema in 2007. With just an old projector, he traveled through Iraq to show his film at small, outdoor cinemas. When the mobile cinema opened for the first time in August, hundreds of spectators and a horde of media flocked to see it.

But this was not without risk. In November 2008, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bagdad suffered a huge bombing by Al-Qaida that killed over 300 people. “The day after, we put out chairs, lit candles and brought people together to see the film. It was very emotional. There was still blood everywhere. People lit hundreds of candles for the victims. It was in the news all over the world, which was amazing.”

While shooting Ahlaam and during different workshop and film projects in Iraq and Jordan, Mohamed was able to train a new generation of filmmakers. This led him to the idea of starting an independent film center in Bagdad that would deal with human rights issues through film. The Independent Film Center was established in 2009, and since then more than 150 young filmmakers have graduated, with Hivos supporting several of the IFC’s projects.

The social power of film

In 2010, Mohamed released his film Son of Babylon about a mother looking for her son, who went missing in the Gulf war (1991). She ends up finding him in a mass grave after crossing paths with fellow Iraqis on a similar journey. In the end, she forgives those responsible for the death of her son.

“The concept of forgiveness is not common in Iraq. It is always about revenge, about killing,” Mohamed explains. It was therefore ground breaking for a filmmaker to introduce the idea of forgiveness.

The screening in Iraq was a huge event and provoked all sorts of responses. “People said I got this idea because I lived in Europe and that made me frame things in a positive way. They said I did not see the reality. But later, when the film was screened everywhere and shown on Iraqi television eight times, people stopped me on the street and told me: ‘Thank you for this.’ It was really life changing for people - they still talk about it.” This is what drives Mohamed to make films.

A film can affect and change people. It can improve lives. And that is what is important.

Iraq today

Mohamed has just finished his latest film, The Journey, about a female suicide bomber who suddenly hesitates about her mission. It is the first movie in 25 years to be released commercially within Iraq. “All of my previous films have been released in Europe, but not in Iraq because there were no movie theaters.” Over the last five years, however, malls with cinemas have been built throughout the country, so The Journey is going to be released in 17 cities. “This is huge and so important to us. We started a campaign called ‘One million people in the audience’ to reach people to go and see this film.”

But there’s no film industry in Iraq like in Europe or the US, and Iraqi institutions won’t commercially support the development of films.** “I’m still co-producing with the support of European countries,” Mohamed says. “I wish I could fully produce my work in Iraq, but at the moment this isn’t possible.”

Changing lives

In 2008, the Mobile Cinema showed one of his films to over 1,300 Iraqi soldiers who had never seen a film before. “It was amazing to show them something cultural and artistic about a subject so close to them. They came to me after the screening and said: ‘We never experienced something like this before. This film has affected us, it showed us things in a different way’”.

For me, Hivos is like a grandfather - he has experience and is able to help his young grandson or granddaughter. I’m grateful.

Mohamed believes in the power of joining forces with an organization like Hivos. “For me, this is all about trying to improve the life of people in difficult situations together - people in the Middle East, in Africa, in parts of the world where we as a society have not developed in the right way. We have faced war, we faced occupation, we faced terrorism, and we faced dictatorships. That’s when people need some support and help from someone else.”

** However, Iraq did nominate both Son of Babylon and The Journey for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language prize, in 2009 and 2018 respectively.