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Emad Ali's film about iconic cafe screened at Baghdad festival.

Summary: As Baghdad writhed with violence in 2006, Emad Ali set out to make a film about the city's iconic Shabandar Cafe.

BAGHDAD: As Baghdad writhed with violence in 2006, Emad Ali set out to make a film about the city's iconic Shabandar Cafe. After the teahouse was bombed, a deadly mortar killed his wife and a gunman shot him three times, he turned the camera on himself.

Despite the ordeals, he finished "A candle for the Shabandar Cafe," screening it for the first time in Iraq at this month's Documentary Film Festival of Baghdad. The event is organized by the capital's struggling, non-governmental Independent Film and Television College to showcase student films made between 2004 and this year.

Through the lives of ordinary people, these 16 documentaries capture all the plagues visited on Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein: a vicious Al-Qaeda insurgency; abuse of Iraqi prisoners by occupation troops; murderous sectarian violence; ethnic divisions that turned friends into enemies.

"We wanted to show what it feels like to be an Iraqi, to capture a portion of Iraq's ongoing history," said filmmaker Kasim Abid, who returned from Britain in 2003 and, a year later, opened the tuition-free college with fellow Iraqi filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi.

In "Baghdad Days," Hiba Bassem returns from the family home in northern Kirkuk to finish college in 2004.

It is a time of chaos: U.S. troops and tanks patrol the streets. Electricity is as scarce as a good night's sleep in the stifling heat, and Al-Qaeda is targeting Americans and "collaborators."

Her year-long ordeals hit a low when Ali, a cousin in his 20s who works as a translator for the Americans, finds a booby-trapped phone charger left for him in the garden. It rips off his left hand, mutilates the right and leaves him blinded.

Sectarian and ethnic divisions were coming to a boil, especially in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Kirkuk.

Like the countless displaced across Iraq, her Arab family, which had lived for decades in a Sunni Kurdish neighborhood, flees Kirkuk one night and joins her in Baghdad, after other Arab families receive threats.

In March 2007, a suicide bombing killed more than 30 people and wounded at least 60 in Baghdad's renowned Mutannabi street, destroying the century-old Shabandar Cafe.

Before the attack, Emad Ali had finished filming faded pictures of old Baghdad on the cafe walls, an ancient radio on the mantle and a wizened manager tapping out customers' bills on a clunky typewriter.

He stopped filming after his wife and father died in a mortar attack on their home. Violence was rampant and often random when he resumed after several months, and he was returning from filming one day when a gunman shot him in the chest, back and leg.

Ali turned the camera on himself, capturing just another victim of another day in Baghdad. "A creative person dies when he stops creating, that's why I continued," a healed Ali said on the sidelines of the two-day film festival.

There is no recorded history between 2007 -- when Abid had to pack up and leave temporarily because things became too risky -- and 2010, when the school reopened, and had the funds to run classes.

"When we started in 2004 we had no money, nothing at all," said Abid, joking that he is the cleaner and manager of the school, housed in a modest two-room flat.

Then came a $22,000 grant from California-based NGO Internews, and the students' cameras began to roll. Since then, most of the funding has come from charities and independent foundations in Europe, the United States and Arab countries. "We are always struggling for money," Abid said.

Violence in Iraq now has dropped, although kidnappings and bombings still happen nearly every day. American forces have retreated to their bases, largely invisible on the streets, ahead of a pullout at year's end.

The films made in 2010 and early this year are about people gluing their broken lives back together again.

In "Naaeem the barber," a professor who moonlights as a men's hairdresser returns home to his war-wrecked Baghdad neighborhood.

"The area was empty, shops were closed and the owners had given me the keys, so I rented the shop next door and gave it to my wife to run as a flower shop, to bring some life back to the area," Na'eem says.

Perhaps the invasion's greatest contribution has been freedom of expression, non-existent under Saddam. There are still constraints on free speech, though, and even artistic expression, especially in the conservative south.

Majid, a talented young folk singer, struggles in the southern city of Nassiriyah against Islamists who consider art a sin.

Once, before a concert, armed men beat up the musicians and wrecked their instruments, Majid recalls. To repair his stringed instrument Majid goes to an artisan, who works in secret out of fear. "I might get killed but this [music] is my life," Majid says, vowing to continue his art in this year's "Sing your song."

Many of the student films have been screened at festivals around the world, picking up awards.

"I think that for all of us Iraqis who are trying to make things -- films, books, theater, whatever -- what we do is perhaps an unconscious form of resistance against the destruction and fragmentation all around us," Pachachi said. A partner in Abid's film school, she is, like him, an internationally known and award-winning documentary filmmaker.

"If we didn't do this, what would we do?" Pachachi asked. "Sit and watch the TV and weep?"

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:May 6, 2011
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