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Art closely reflects life in one of this year’s Arabian Sights Film Festival openers,  Open Shutters Iraq, a documentary film about Iraqi women learning to tell stories using photography.  In a meta-critical way, director Maysoon Pachachi (an Iraqi herself) documents a story she can relate to even though it differs dramatically from her own.   Pachachi was born in Washington, DC to Iraqi parents and was educated in the US, Iraq and the United Kingdom, where she now resides as a professional director.   The women she documents currently live in Iraq, and are learning the craft of photography through a program run by British photojournalist Eugenie Dolberg.

The film is set in Damascus, Syria, where the women got their first training in photography and where they return after shooting photo-essays in Iraq. In their training, they are encouraged to share their life stories so that they can begin to create art from a deeply personal place.  These stories about Iraqi life have been largely unheard and the photos the women subsequently produce come from a perspective largely unseen.

I had the opportunity to ask Pachachi a few questions of my own. Here’s what she had to say:

What made you decide to make this film?

I’m from Iraq, but have lived outside, mostly in the UK, for a long time. Most of my films have been about the Middle East and often with a focus on women.  A couple of my films have been about Iraq. Eugenie Dolberg, who is the photographer who created the Open Shutters project, heard from a friend of hers about my films and she contacted me asking if I’d be interested in making a film about it.  There was, of course, no money for filming, but did it interest me?  I met with her to talk about the project and although I didn’t have a really clear picture of how it was going to work by the end of our talk, I decided to take my camera and go to see what happened.

How long did it take, and what was your process ?

The whole project took about 3 and a half months—a month in the house in Damascus where the women trained, 6 weeks in Iraq where they shot their photos and a month back in Syria, just outside Damascus, where they edited their work and wrote their biographies and essays. Then there was a delay for almost 8 months before I could begin editing because I was committed to something else. Editing took about 6 months on and off. I didn’t work with anyone else on the film—I directed, shot and edited everything myself. This was partly a matter of money but given the nature of  the project — the fact that we were all women living in one house and the intensity of the stories told—it’s hard to imagine a film crew being there.

Was this film simply a documentation of the Shutters program, or were you aiming to portray something more?

I started filming without a plan, just following the course of the photography project and the stories of the people involved.  As we went on, however, I realized this was much more than just a typical NGO-type project.  For everyone participating, it was a transformative experience.  When the women drew life maps and presented them to each other, they unearthed memories which had lain buried in the course of just trying to survive 30 years of wars, dictatorship, sanctions and military occupation.  And then they used the sense that this gave them of who they were individually, as a group and as a country, to decide on the photographs they wanted to take in Iraq and what they wanted to express about their lives.  As the shooting and editing went on, I realized that this was a film about the alchemy that can sometimes turn trauma and loss and grief into a creative work.

Can you tell me about a time when the film gods were upon you (when everything went right) and maybe a time when they weren’t (when everything went wrong)?

Really I  was lucky and blessed making this film.  I didn’t encounter any significant difficulties.  My problems were largely to do with having to do everything myself; I am not a camera person, but I was shooting, not a sound person but was recording.  It was pretty exhausting. Editing was a very complicated process because I was telling a story that was collective and individual at the same time and because there were so many strands to weave together.  The whole project and certainly the editing of the film was also emotionally demanding for me.  I was turned inside-out by the experience  because of my relationship to all the women and how close I got to them.  In a sense what they spoke about was also my story in some way because I am Iraqi too.

How was this film different from other films you’ve made—and what did you learn?

In some way this film is a development of other films I’ve made and not radically different in sensibility, but the circumstances I was working in were different.  The project was very focused – in one place, with its own trajectory and rhythm and there was nothing I could set up. I just had to watch and think and talk to people.  I think in other films I’ve been able to construct the filming; to research and set up different situations.  In this film, I just had to go with it.  Also, although other films I’ve made have had a collective focus,  it has never been quite like this, with a group of people all interacting together. Usually it’s me who is putting different people into the same ‘story’ .

I think I came out of this film not with new ideas but a few thoughts that had been sharpened by the experience.  People in difficult situations like war or famine,  if they are portrayed at all, are mostly shown as victims only.  Because they aren’t always shown as complex human beings who happen to be living in terrible circumstances, those circumstances somehow seem to define them entirely and it makes it much more difficult for us to understand or identify with them.

Open Shutters Iraq will be screening at the E Street Landmark Theater Friday, October 9 and Saturday, October 10 at 9:00 pm. Pachachi will be present at both screenings to answer questions from the audience.