Samir: rebel with a cause: a defining scene in Samir's 2005 film Snow White is when rapper, Paco, confronts his wealthy Zurich audience with rhymes about their materialism and superficiality.
Still he can appear shy, sometimes speaking in whispers ... exuding intensity and compassion. He's definitely on the side of society's underdogs. Much of this social consciousness arises from his own unique background.
"My father was an electrical engineer engaged in Iraqi politics," Samir explains. "He married my Swiss mother in England and they moved to Baghdad. My grandfather was Shiite, very religious but open-minded."
Switzerland via Baghdad
Though he was quite young, Samir has vivid memories of 1950s Baghdad because of the social unrest. Iraqis were protesting English colonisation. Sometimes tanks rolled through the streets.
Samir's parents moved to Switzerland in 1961. "My family had to run away. There was a counter-revolution involving Saddam Hussein. My father received a grant to continue his studies with a Swiss corporation. He decided to stay ill Switzerland because Iraq was too dangerous."
The family missed Baghdad. But it became obvious Samir and his three siblings would grow up in Switzerland. "It was very difficult," Samir concedes. "Perhaps you could compare Switzerland then to the Old South in America--rural, xenophobic and isolationist."
Samir's father once asked him why he thought the family had no Swiss friends besides relatives. "Then it clicked. Indians, Italians, Spanish, English, Americans, whatever. But no Swiss." Still, his youth was mostly happy, even though he felt increasingly oppressed.
Rebellion and cinema
"I grew up in a proletarian neighbourhood," Samir says with pride. "Definitely not rich ... foreign workers. At a friend's house I heard Northern Soul. I found Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice in a bookshop and started reading everything I could about the Black Panthers, R-n-B music and discovered jazz."
Soon, he was sharing his radical politics with the mostly unenthusiastic.
"I was rebelling against the rigidity of Swiss society. The typical response was, 'If you don't like it, leave.' But I always said, 'Why should I go? I belong here too. You go.' I was blunt, very harsh with them. I was so angry. They tried to tell you everything to do with every detail of how to do it."
Regardless, Samir was already in love with cinema. "It started in Iraq with cartoons. Later my aunt took me to Bollywood movies. We also saw Egyptian films. They were high quality, telling Arab stories. It made a big impression on me.
"In my Zurich neighbourhood, there was only one cinema and it showed strange, uninteresting German films. But in the early 70s, there was a 'New Wave' of French, Italian and American cinema--very engaging films that I saw in the student clubs six nights a week."
Typography and cinema deja vu
Samir didn't believe he could become a filmmaker. He studied typography instead. "I thought directors were like gods. The first Swiss film school wasn't created until the early 90s. Back then I had an Iraqi passport, so I couldn't study abroad. I had to study something 'real'."
Perhaps luckily, typography didn't work out. "I learned a profession that was past its time. The digitalisation of typography started in the 70s. After four years of studying, I was without work, without hope, and had an Iraqi passport. I was eighteen and life was over. I just wanted to go to the cinema," he laughs.
Necessity gave new life to the dream of directing. "I read every book that I could find. Watched every documentary about filmmaking. My girlfriends went crazy because I was always in the cinema."
Finally, fate intervened.
"I was a waiter and met a friend who worked in a Zurich production company. When he was promoted, I applied for his job."
He got it.
Afterwards, Samir worked as a freelance camera assistant and director of photography. "I started to realise I knew more than people returning from film schools abroad," he says.
"They didn't know how to make movies. I had to show them where to place cameras, how to talk to actors. I'd worked 80 hours a week and learned everything."
With the rise of video he made his name with experimental pieces. By the late '80s he was bored. "I liked working with experimental images, but was still more interested in telling stories."
He returned to his old boss, requesting mainstream work. Despite initial scepticism, Samir was assigned to direct two episodes of a popular police drama--Eurocops. Both proved successful.
Samir also made a documentary about immigration in Switzerland and started his production company, Dschoint Ventschr (Joint Venture) with two partners. He was a reluctant producer, resorting to self-help to make better films.
"In the '80s Swiss producers were not good at networking with the rest of Europe. My partners and I connected ourselves with the upcoming European market. We were an intentionally international company."
Among notable works, Samir directed Forget Baghdad (2002), a highly regarded documentary about the unique plight of Iraqi Jewish Arabs exiled in Israel. He's clearly comfortable wearing many hats.
But it's Snow White, released in 2005, that hits a nerve for people living in Zurich, a city often perceived as pretentious and even soulless. Samir says the love story of Nico and Paco originated from his musings on sleepless nights. It's set against the flash and cash lifestyle of Zurich's rich and beautiful.
'Privileged' Nico is hopelessly adrift in a seemingly chic world of easy drugs and lost souls. "If you grow up in this rich, spoiled climate where you have everything ... maybe nobody really cares about you," Samir concludes.
"During promotion of the film, there was huge opposition, with people asking 'Why are you showing this?' I was saying that rich or poor, you have to discover what you're going to do with your life."
In another defining scene--ill, eerily trance-like Nico spots Paco outside the window of her clinic. She suddenly crashes through it. "Nico really was Snow White," Samir points out.
"White skin, red lips, black hair and blue eyes. In the fairy tale, she is preserved by the Seven Dwarves under glass. The Prince comes, removes the glass, kisses her and she wakes up. I felt Nico had to break the glass because she has to liberate herself."
It's a powerful image. "If you're looking for hope in the movie, you can say Nico erased everything in her mind. Now, she is starting over with Paco. In the last scene, the snow is so clean, it's almost virginal. Everything is new."
Samir used that same optimism to confront Zurich itself. "I was a member of a very radical movement in the early '80s. We challenged Zurich from top to bottom. Even in this wealthy society, you can change things."
Snow White delves into a side of Switzerland not often seen in theatres. Samir is aware that Swiss cinema is still maturing and he points fingers.
"If you don't go into the real world you can't tell stories," he argues. "The problem with some people is they're boring, safe middle-class people who never lived in the real world. What stories do they have to tell?"
He does though: Samir plans to direct the black comedy Superland, about American soldiers being trained in Germany to win hearts and minds in Iraq. He was part of the anti-war movement but he's not a pacifist, is anti-Saddam and comes from a Shiite family.
"But when I realised America was not listening to Iraqis ... I knew the whole thing would end in catastrophe."
As a producer, Fraulein--about two generations of women from the former Yugoslavia--is a critical triumph. While the documentary Heart of Gold, will explore the life of South African Hamilton Naki, the black gardener and aid to famous heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard.
"I will never stop," Samir proclaims. Swiss cinema hopes not.
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