An Iraqi Film Hero in America

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.