Oday Rasheed's "Underexposure"

Blinking Incredulously at the Sun

"Oday Rasheed has taken the term 'guerilla filmmaking' to a whole new level," according to Variety Magazine. The film demonstrates, however, how difficult it is for Iraqi film to develop a genuine cinematic language of its own. By Silke Kettelhake

"Oday Rasheed has taken the term 'guerilla filmmaking' to a whole new level," according to Variety Magazine. The film demonstrates, however, how difficult it is for Iraqi film to develop a genuine cinematic language of its own. Silke Kettelhake reports

photo: Underexposure.com
"Underexposure" is the first film to be shot after the Saddam Hussein's overthrow. The film is an Iraqi-German production

​​"We hated Saddam," says director Oday Rasheed, born in 1973, "but we are not yet capable of rejoicing that he is gone."

The first Iraqi film was produced after the end of the Second Gulf War, between November 2003 and April 2004 – is how the distributor is marketing Oday Rasheed's film "Underexposure" in Germany. Apparently, according to the press material, they got hold of thirty-year-old Kodak 35mm film from Saddam's archives on the black market, that is, from the 'poison cabinet of Evil itself'.

Tom Tykwer and Maria Köpf of X-Filme Creative Pool supported the project and Rasheed put the film in the camera – without even checking to see, according to the distribution saga, whether the material from the sinecure of the Ministry of Culture was even usable. In 1983 Kodak stopped producing film material, but advised Rasheed to underexpose the film in the camera, hence the title "Underexposure." A risky venture, insanity, or just a clever sales trick from the magic box?

"I'm not sure I will survive"

Oday Rasheed explains: "First and foremost I had to deal with people's reactions. Only they can convey the effect of the war. So of course the language of the media and news had no place in this film. I selected expressive, poetic images for my film, because that is how I think and live."

Filmmaker Hassan, easily identified as the director's alter ego, decides after the American attacks on Baghdad to document the life of his friends and neighbors on film. "I'm not sure I will survive," he notes in his diary, and certainly his intimate confessions are well stored here.

One shuts a diary and hides it in a drawer. But Rasheed shot a film. And with the sales argument of being the first film to come out of Iraq, he takes on a responsibility which he eludes in an act of narcissistic navel-gazing: Between rather dubious eyewitness accounts, which are to portray how Baghdadi residents endured the war, he exhibits his private life – scenes of a marriage, which have surely been played by better actors – or films burning cars with his team films.

The fear in the faces of the lay actors

Grown-up boys playing at shooting film. Director Hassan acts as if paralyzed – the war pursues him like a specter, and yet he cannot portray it: "I don't know what to film anymore," he says in the middle of the film. He can't find the words or the images; they have ceased to exist, leaving only the inner emptiness, the emptiness around him.

But the exceptional circumstances and the fear are present in the faces of the lay actors. It is as if they don't dare to breathe out loud – yet in the film they recite their texts without actually having their say.

If one forgets the film in the film, the intrusively penetrating self-reflection of a director without ideas, then what remains are intersections in the city center, the languid flow of the river, children in devastated side roads, burning car wrecks, ruins, trash, and amidst them the crazy plastic bag collector, the ill musician, the old man with his ear firmly pressed to the radio, the fearful woman covertly caring for a wounded soldier, then what remains is a premonition of how life in Baghdad might feel.

Rasheed immerses the events in a diffuse twilight. Remove the filter from the camera lens, bring on the raging thunderstorm, each explosion delivering light and clarity to the creamy haze! Baghdad needs more light! The film "Underexposure" has its strongest moments in images that recall the silent, unedited broadcast sequences of "Euronews:" the images behind the newsreel, everywhere alike.

Blinking incredulously at the sun

The awkward monologue finally ceases during a drive through the ruins of Baghdad, in whose streets the promise of the metropolis still lives: Life will vibrate here again, even if the city is presently a synonym for suicide attacks.

"I am an Arab, a Muslim, and I lived under Saddam. Those are reasons enough to put a wall around your thoughts, as in a prison. It is as if the country had been imprisoned for over thirty years. We are still blinking incredulously at the sun." Rasheed belongs to an artist group called "Al-Najeen," the "survivors," a lost generation that was cut off from the developments of the modern age for more than a decade thanks to Saddam and U.N. sanctions, and is now risking its first cautious steps.

Under the Baath regime he was expelled from the state-run film school. He made his career in the underground, which is to say that his films only circulated among friends. Rasheed: "After the war everyone was clamoring, the new politicians and the media: Build Iraq. What do they mean? Are they talking about the destroyed buildings and trees? They must rebuild the intellect, the soul, and the consciousness of Iraq!"

Silke Kettelhake

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Nancy Joyce

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