A selection of Iraq's best independent movies

A fully online, completely free programmeruns for its second year this October.

by Roisin Lanigan
24 August 2021, 8:57am

While not all of us can nab a ticket to Cannes, Toronto or Sundance, the movie fanatics who don’t want to have to splurge on endless PCR flight tests can at least enjoy of a wave of new, more accessible film festivals online. One of those is the Independent Iraqi Film Festival, which is celebrating its second year running with a totally virtual and completely free programme, spotlighting 15 new indie releases from the country.

As well as industry talks from figures like Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz and actor-director Zahraa Ghandour, the Independent Iraqi Film Festival will release all of this year’s titles online with English subtitles in the first week of October (1-7). Run by a small team of Iraqi women working in the film industry -- the festival is led by i-D contributor Róisín Tapponi, Shahnaz Dulaimy and Israa al Kamali -- the community driven project wants to showcase the diversity and resilience of the people of Iraq, and to advertise the breadth of the country’s culture to a global audience.

If that sounds like a bit of you, here is a selection of the most exciting movies debuting at this year’s IIFF.

1. Tonight, Next Week (2009) by Khalid Alzhraou

This year’s festival opens with this cult classic, which is in turn about the film industry in Iraq (so meta!). While the country once had more than 80 cinemas and produced 100 of its own feature films, today Iraq has lost the majority of its cinema locations and many of its original film prints are sadly missing. Khalid’s film explores this sad state of events, using footage from Saddam Hussein’s archive and asking the question: how will the culture of cinema in Iraq continue to survive?

2. Balanja (2015) by Ali Raheem

As part of the IIFF’s dedication to highlighting the voices of marginalised Iraqis, this film from Ali Raheem, the founder of Iraqi production company Sumerian Dream, amplifies Kurdish voices. The rarely seen film follows four people from Kurdistan as they try to rebuild their small town from the ravages and hardship of its past. To further that same dedication to uplifting marginalised voices, this year the festival will also be screening Iraqi Women: Voices From Exile (1994) by Iraqi auteur Maysoon Pachachi, which brings the voices of Iraqi women to the forefront of political struggle.

3. Return (2014) by Michael Rakowitz

As well as the feature films being shown at this year’s IIFF, the programme has also decided to broadcast three shorts which amplify the most exciting filmmakers from Iraqis living across the world, and those trailblazing the world of wider visual arts. This short, from veteran visual artist and Iraqi-American Michael Rakowitz, is part of the series Diasporic Voices: Iraq From a Distance, a collection of four films from Iraqis in the Western diaspora. From comedy to nostalgia, the films -- which also feature work from Ja'far Abd Alhamid, Noor Gaith and Saif Alsaegh -- construct Iraq from the memory of exile, envisioning a home from afar, or a home that no longer exists at all.

If straightforward movies in short or feature form aren’t your bag, then there’s plenty of other parts of the IIFF’s 2021 programme to check out. There’s Home Videos: Experimenting with the Archive, a series which platforms moving-image and video work by Iraqi visual artists using experimental techniques to represent their stories. With previous screenings at the Venice Biennale, MoMA and The Showroom, the series features Kurdish artist Sherko Abbas’s piece Paper Puppet Testimony, which reconstructs the Kurdish uprising of 1991, as well as work by Shamiran Istifan and Ali Kamel.

As well as that focus on the diaspora, there’s plenty of homegrown talent being showcased too. Another series from this year’s festival, On The Ground: Stories From Inside Iraq, highlights emerging art voices living in Iraq, Mounir Salah, Alia Hassan, Heba Bassem and Karrar Al Azzawi. The featured filmmakers make use of guerilla filmmaking techniques and highly captivating images to show the audience -- watching digitally from around the world -- Iraq as it exists today, with a raw and vital force.

You can check out the full trailer for this year's Independent Iraqi Film Festival here, highlighting clips from all of the films and work featured, on the front page of the festival website.

The full subtitled festival will screen online from 1 October here. Follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more on movies.