Zaman, The Man from the Reeds is the first Iraqi feature film in 15 years. It made its American premiere October 23 at the ninth annual Arabian Sights Film Festival in Washington D.C. The film is a simple love story, but telling it turned into a complex tale of adversity and improvisation. The filmmaker had to struggle with all the hardships the Iraqi people endured under Saddam Hussein's regime as well as international sanctions.
Zaman, The Man from the Reeds takes place during the final days of life under the Saddam Hussein government. The main character is a childless old man named Zaman, which in Arabic means time. The film opens as Zaman emerges from his hut to perform his daily prayers.
When Zaman sees Yasin, a 5-year-old boy who has just lost his parents, he consoles him with some comforting wisdom.
"You see this palm tree?" he asks Yasin. "It has bravely survived heat, cold and rain. Yet, it stands tall. It never complained."
When Zaman's wife, Najma, gets sick, he travels all the way from Iraq's southern marshes to Baghdad to get medicine for her. But once in the capital city, he finds the pharmacies' shelves bare because of U.N.-imposed sanctions and a distribution system that favors prominent figures of the ruling regime. Zaman finally gets the medication, but when he returns to his village, it's too late. And the young orphan boy, Yasin, consoles him with the same comforting tale of the enduring palm tree.
Like the palm tree, director Amer Alwan had to withstand many hardships to make this film… and he told the audience at the Arabian Sights Film Festival not just the confusion, stress and threats that were part of everyday life under Saddam Hussein. He says, "Iraqi artists faced humiliation and despair because most of the produced works then were sheer propaganda." But shooting this film, he says, was the first step to bringing life back to the Iraqi cinema.
"Iraqi film making was almost dead due to the embargo," he explained. "Because of the sanctions imposed by the United Nations and United States, Iraq wasn't allowed to import the 35 and 16 millimeter film stocks. The thinking was that the materials contained some chemicals that could have been used to produce weapons of mass destruction."
Director Alwan was forced to shoot his movie on videotape, then transfer it to 35-millimeter film when he went back to Paris, where he has lived since 1980. He says dealing with the Iraqi government censors was another obstacle.
"The people who were in charge of the film administration and censors were ignorant," he said. "They knew nothing about art and history. When shooting, I was inspired by the places and actors. I added several scenes to the original script. But the censors prevented me from shooting in certain places and confiscated five tapes."
So Amer Alwan worked with the tapes he still had, crafting a film that critics praised as mixing 'lyricism with documentary-style realism.' Zaman, The Man from the Reeds has been shown at several film festivals in Europe and Latin America, but Mr. Alwan says bringing his work to Washington was especially important to him. He called it an emotional experience.
"First of all, the American administration that occupied my country is here in Washington. Secondly, screening my film in Washington is very significant to me," he explained. "America occupied Iraq with tanks and weapons, and here I am coming to America with a movie, a universal love story, hoping that Americans will become aware of the plight of the Iraqi people."
He got what he'd hoped for… and more.
Director Amer Alwan says he's grateful for the warm welcome he received from audiences in Washington… and hopes to come back for future festivals with new films representing his country, the free Iraq with an independent identity.