NEW YORK – One of Iraq’s only working filmmakers, Oday Rasheed – whose brilliant film 2005 Underexposure followed a group of characters in Baghdad after the United States-led invasion in 2003, and whose new film Qarantina is now premiering – is in Manhattan. The glamorous settings in which he is now showing Qarantina – a screening at the Museum of Modern Art, for example, and in the private homes of American directors and stars – could not be further removed from the violence-riddled context of his daily life.
In Baghdad, Rasheed has gained fame – and notoriety – by seeking to inspire a new generation of Iraqi filmmakers and other young artists. Qarantina is one of only four feature films completed in Iraq in the past 12 years. A member of a collective called Najeen (Survivors), Rasheed is part of a vanguard of younger artists, writers, and filmmakers whose work attests to their commitment to art in the midst of crisis.
It is startling to see him walk into a New York living room: his demeanor is quiet and dignified. An air of solemnity envelops him. He has experienced unthinkable trauma, and is still exposed to it. “Of seven close friends I had growing up,” he tells me, “five are dead.” One was recently murdered by a gunshot to the head while he was standing in his kitchen.
Some days, he says, “you wake up and the radio or TV reports five car bombings,” leading to a kind of claustrophobia – part of the subject matter of his film. I noted that he might be experiencing post-traumatic stress from the loss of his friend. “I have had that – have done that already,” he smiled.
Rasheed is just turning 40, and his life reflects his country’s dramas: part of what has been called a “lost generation” of Iraqi artists and intellectuals, he and his friends were isolated for years by sanctions. But he also describes the Saddam years as an era in which, while there was no freedom, intellectuals had room to maneuver, as long as they “knew what to leave alone.”
He lived through the US-led invasion during a formative time in his creative life – he was writing for television and engaged in film criticism and commentary while trying to survive bombardment, looting, and chaos. But he also had to maintain his intellectual integrity.
When the US military sought to showcase the fact that a filmmaker was at work in occupied Iraq, Rasheed was swept to a formal dinner in one of Saddam's former palaces in the Green Zone, attended by senior US officials and military contractors – an invitation that one would not want to receive, and would not be able to turn down.
Now Rasheed reflects on his country’s turn toward religious extremism: he describes a pre-invasion Iraq in which women were professionals and fairly emancipated, whereas now women wear headscarves under pressure, “for a peaceful life.” His friend, a young Iraqi actress named Zahra Zubaidi, had to flee the Middle East after having played a rape victim in the Brian de Palma film Redacted; she has since emigrated to New York.
Constant intimidation by religious extremists and political factions is the intellectual’s fate in Iraq today. And yet Rasheed refuses to be discreet: “Everything I believe, I believe in it,” he says. “I cannot lie or not answer the questions.”
Rasheed is in New York mainly because it is the location of his next film, which “deals with the influence of the US contractors after the invasion of Iraq, not only on the lives of Iraqis, but also on the life of the US.” As for Iraq today, Rasheed says, “I do not think that Americans are indifferent to what happened and what is happening, but the daily details of cruelty do not give them either the time or the energy to think about larger issues.”
Indeed, Rasheed notes that at every US screening of his film, audiences need to apologize before they begin to relate to Rasheed as a filmmaker rather than as a representative of his country. “Personally, I do not ask anything; I’m here to clear up some confusion by the medium of film.”
Iraq, ravaged by war and now shaken daily by violence, is known as the most intellectually inclined of the Arab countries. As Iraqi and other Muslim intellectuals in the region often repeat: “Books are written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon, and read in Iraq.”
Here is hoping that Raheed and his colleagues continue to build up an Iraqi culture that is vibrant and free; and here is hoping that the relationship of US and international audiences to Rasheed goes from one of expiation to one of engagement with his work. His embrace of the right to his truth, which is the artist’s task, is nonetheless remarkable, given that he is working in an environment in which part of the creative process involves trying to stay alive.