Four years ago, Rijin Sahakian attended a film festival in Doha, Qatar, that aimed to bring together filmmakers from all over the Middle East. She encountered only one Iraqi filmmaker—and he lived in Norway.
This didn’t come as much of a shock to the Iraq-born, California-raised 25-year-old Sahakian. After all, only a handful of movies—all of them paeans to Saddam Hussein—had been made by Iraq-based directors in the past 20 years. But then came the war.
Sahakian’s interest in international cinema began after college, when she organized a Middle Eastern and African film festival for a Detroit nonprofit and volunteered at festivals in New York City. She was inspired by the work of such Iranian directors as A Time for Drunken Horses’ Bahman Ghobadi, whose allegorical style is largely a response to government censorship.
“I grew up all my life hearing the things that [my] people had gone through,” says Sahakian, who left Iraq at age 3. “I thought, Now is the time to put that power into the hands of the Iraqis, to tell the story of what their experiences have been for so long.” In August 2003, she moved from California to D.C. to found FilmIraq, a nonprofit organization that connects emerging Iraqi filmmakers to training, equipment, funding, and support.
Sahakian turned to the lone Iraqi director she had met at the Doha fest, Samir Alwan, for encouragement. With his help, and the help of French-Iraqi director Saad Salman, she began searching for filmmakers living in Iraq. “When I first started, I thought, This is really important to do, but I had no idea if there were any Iraqi filmmakers. I could understand if there weren’t,” she says. But as soon as she found one through her network of expatriates in the industry, Sahakian discovered dozens more. Soon, she was e-mailing extensively with about 20 aspiring filmmakers.
Enthusiasm for FilmIraq was easy to come by: Ghobadi offered to lend training and signed on to steer a documentary about the first Iraqi women’s Olympic team. Staffers at Echoing Green, a leading arts funder, also expressed strong interest in the project. But as the war dragged on, growing security concerns made investors skittish, and Sahakian’s initial funders pulled out. It doesn’t help matters that Iraq currently lacks the infrastructure for film distribution and screenings; most movie theaters aren’t in working order yet.
But Sahakian isn’t discouraged. “I believe that [creativity] is a vital need, too,” she says. “That can do a lot in terms of creating a civil society where there hasn’t really been one.” For now, she’s concentrating on gathering equipment and developing training plans, which she’ll bring with her when she travels to Iraq in the fall.
“[These are the] people that you want to be supporting—people who are reflecting, who care about what’s happening there, and who…want to be part of that exchange of ideas through art,” Sahakian says. “It’s kind of like when kids are outcasts at school. If they can’t be friends, they’re just going to start hating everyone.” —Bidisha Banerjee