Behind concrete blast walls and battling a flickering power supply, Baghdad’s international film festival opened in a hotel on Wednesday in another sign of how improved security is bringing life back to the city.There was even a red carpet rolled out, but guests to the event last held in 2005 had to be body-searched three times before they were allowed to walk down it.
Despite a sharp drop in violence in Iraq since June, the directors of the 40 foreign films at the festival stayed away. Some were keen to come but were discouraged by organizers, anxious to avoid any risk of the event grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons.
“Some of the directors wanted to come because of Baghdad’s improved security, but we don’t want to be surprised (by an attack). Hopefully they will attend in the future,” Ammar al- Aradi, the event’s organizer, told Reuters.
A security crackdown by U.S. and Iraqi forces has helped to curb violence between majority Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims that turned the city’s streets into sectarian killing fields. People have begun to venture out again, going to restaurants and parks.
Baghdad once had more than a dozen popular cinemas, where families went to see movies. After decades of international sanctions and wars under Saddam Hussein movie-going went into decline. Since the 2003 invasion most cinemas remain boarded up.
Out of the 61 films competing for medals at the biennial film festival, there are 21 Iraqi entries, mostly short films and documentaries, many of which portray Iraq’s woes.
Some of the films portray aspects of the sectarian violence that left the country on the verge of civil war last year, while several documentaries focus on ancient archaeological sites and the state of Iraq’s southern marshlands.
The film festival, which includes films by French and Belgian directors, was held in the Palestine hotel in central Baghdad and attracted several hundred people and more than a dozen media channels.
The hotel is surrounded by concrete blast walls and guests were frisked three times before reaching the large conference hall where the event was held.
But organizers had other worries besides security on their minds.
Midway through the screening of the first film, a short Iraqi production about a man paranoid of the violence that surrounds him, one of Baghdad’s frequent power cuts left the audience in the dark for a few minutes.
The festival was organized on a shoestring budget and well-known Iraqi actor Mazin Mohammed Mustafa said more funding was needed for local film-makers to develop Iraqi cinema.
“We need financial support for the festival so we can overcome all these difficulties and provide quality cinema that can express our opinions and show our problems,” he said.
Director Sura Abbas said she hoped her documentary about children leaving school in search of menial, poorly paid jobs to help their families would be recognized with an award.
“We had difficulties in filming because there were many explosions on the day we shot the scenes,” she said.
“I know there are many great foreign films in this category but I hope the judges consider the difficult circumstances we worked under.”