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Cameras on a Roll in Iraq

Free of Hussein, the TV and film industry is blossoming and testing boundaries. Viewers, mostly housebound, welcome the daring fare.

May 09, 2005|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Iraqi director Akram Kamel is racing against the sun to finish shooting a Baghdad street scene for his television miniseries.

Daylight is the only lighting he has. When night falls, actors and crew scramble home to beat curfew and escape the criminals, kidnappers and skittish police that roam the capital's streets.

"Quiet everybody! Stand by," shouts Kamel, his eyes locked on a video-monitor framing two actors seated on a restaurant patio. The characters begin to profess their love, in whispers, when two low-flying U.S. military helicopters roar overhead, drowning out their lines. "Cut," the director barks. The actress rolls her eyes.

The scene resumes, but this time a mosque loudspeaker starts transmitting the afternoon prayers, muffling the dialogue. Minutes later, Baghdad is plunged into another power blackout. Neighborhood generators rumble to life. Kamel surrenders to the cacophony.

"This country is hopeless," he fumes, running his fingers through thinning gray hair.

Filming on Baghdad's streets unwittingly produces some form of cinema verite, and directors such as Kamel are confronting the challenges as they try to revive Iraq's battered entertainment industry.

After decades of government censorship and a two-year U.S. occupation, actors, filmmakers and television producers are embracing new artistic freedoms to tell stories about Iraqis -- before and after Saddam Hussein's overthrow -- for an increasingly housebound audience.

A dozen new private TV channels are pumping out soap operas, sitcoms, reality shows and dramas, with a distinctly Iraqi flavor. For the first time, Iraqi television is tackling issues of social injustice, government corruption and, on occasion, life under Hussein.

The nation's first postwar feature-length film is "Underexposure," which focuses on a lost generation of young artists coping with the U.S. occupation. It is now debuting at international film festivals.

"Departure," a groundbreaking television serial, which debuted in April, chronicles a gangster family that thrives after the fall of Baghdad by peddling stolen antiquities. Think "Sopranos" with an Iraqi twist. A character on the show lands in jail days before the U.S. invasion after getting drunk and insulting Hussein. It marks the first time that an Iraqi entertainment program has negatively depicted life under the dictator.

"This show expresses what's inside us," said Mothana Ahmed, 40, a Baghdad grocery store owner who has been watching the drama unfold each day. "We all know about the crimes of Saddam Hussein, but to see our lives portrayed in an entertainment program is both thrilling and horrifying."

Perhaps the biggest TV hit is "Caricature," an irreverent "Saturday Night Live"-style sketch comedy show that tackles topics from electricity outages to kidnappings to lazy government officials. In one skit, an unemployed government worker who lost his job after the war curses former U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III because now his life has been reduced to taking his ailing father-in-law to the bathroom.

Another chronicles a family's eternal wait in a gas-station line; their children mature into adults and the father's beard grows to his chest. In another skit, a homely elementary school teacher is flooded with marriage proposals after her government salary jumps from $3 to $200 a month.

The entertainment renaissance is a key cultural benchmark for the nation, experts say.

"Cinema documents a society's experience. It documents the life of the people, both our aspirations and our suffering," said Sabah Mehdi Musawi, dean of Baghdad University's film school.

The new crop of locally made movies and TV shows not only offers a much-needed escape for Iraqis, but can also help them better understand their reality.

"Seeing something on television can bring it closer to the viewer," said Alaa Dahan, head of Al Sharqiyah, the privately owned satellite channel that airs "Departure" and "Caricature."

TV viewers say they're just happy to have a reason to laugh again.

Adnan Dabagh, 60, is a die-hard "Caricature" fan who warns his friends and family not to interrupt him during the show's daily 7 p.m. airing.

"That's sacred time for me," the retired Iraqi army officer said. "Our real life is so bad we need shows like this to poke fun at it in a way everyone can understand."

The new shows are testing Iraq's social and religious norms. Comedy shows on the government-owned Al Iraqiya network have featured drunken sheiks and dimwitted police officers, characters that would have never been allowed under the former regime.

Leaders, from President Bush to former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, are routinely mocked. Al Sharqiyah's gangster miniseries features a scene in which men and women drink and dance together, shocking behavior for Iraqi television, which has not yet shown a kiss.

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