Nationality: Iraq

“Fire Won’t Eat Me Up”: Manal Al-Sheikh

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I really hate to say this but this is the truth, there is no Iraq now.
Manal Al-Sheikh

From director Roxana Vilk and Al Jazeera’s Artscape: Poets of Protest series, here’s a short (25-minute) bio pic from 2012 featuring the Iraqi poet Manal Al-Sheikh and her life in exile with her two children in Norway. Interspersed throughout the film are a number of short poems treated filmpoem style, with the poet’s recitation in Arabic accompanied by on-screen English translation. Ian Dodds was the cameraman, and Ling Lee edited. Vilk has a mini essay accompanying the film on Vimeo that is worth reproducing in full:

FILMMAKER’S VIEW: Keeping the protest alive

By Roxana Vilk

I was really keen that we have an Iraqi poet in the Poets of Protest series. When I read Manal Al Sheikh’s fiery work I was immediately captivated, as she seemed to truly encapsulate the essence of a poet and activist combined.

As Manal says: “When you are a person from a country like Iraq you automatically have some anger inside you and this anger, if you are a poet or a writer, you can transfer it as an explosion in your text.”

Manal is originally from Nineveh in northern Iraq, one of the oldest and greatest cities in antiquity and a place renowned for its multi-cultural society. Since the 2003 invasion, Nineveh has been the scene of some of the bloodiest and most violent fighting.

“I witnessed everything, the bombing, the struggle between the parties, all these make you angry, so I protest with my text,” the poet explains.

However, Manal’s work as an outspoken poet and journalist in Iraq was fraught with danger and her life was constantly under threat. She had to make the heart-breaking decision to leave her country and her family and seek refuge with her two young children in Norway.

“For me as a female writer in Iraq, just being female it was of course a challenge; just to live there in a normal way with my thoughts and my ambitions for a future. But really I can say the main change in my life was becoming a single mother in that society. Suddenly I found myself a widow, a very young widow,” Manal reflects.

I travelled with Ian Dodds, the director of photography, to Stavanger in Norway in January 2012, during the depths of the Norwegian winter, as temperatures were plummeting to an unforgiving -20 degrees Celsius. Filming the stark contrast of the snowy cold white landscapes against Manal’s stories of Iraq made her struggle to have her voice heard all the more poignant.

At a time when it is dangerous to speak out in Iraq, especially as a woman, Manal had to travel half way around the world to keep her protest alive.

Our film follows Manal closely as she works through crafting a new poem, before presenting it to a public audience. Manal is a truly extraordinary poet, brave and defiant, at a time when Iraqi female voices are increasingly being silenced.

About the series:

Poets of Protest reflects the poet’s view of the change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa through its intimate profiles of six contemporary writers as they struggle to lead, to interpret and to inspire.

Poetry lives and breathes in the Middle East as in few other places.

In the Beginning by Zaher Mousa

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“Poetry is the only way to speak during a period of chaos.”
Zaher Mousa

A film adaptation of a poem by the contemporary Iraqi poet Zaher (or Zahir) Mousa produced, directed and filmed by the Scottish/Iranian filmmaker Roxana Vilk, who has built up quite an interesting and varied body of poetry-related work in recent years: bio pics, interviews, and filmpoems, many featuring poets from the Middle East. (I’ll be sharing another example later in the week.) Among other credits, Maryam Gorbankarimi edited, and the sound design is by Peter Vilk with Ilhan Burutcu on the ney. The Scottish poet John Glenday is listed as the main translator, with assistance from Lauren Pyott and James Sandri (who was also the assistant director). The Vimeo description notes:

This film is a result of a commission from Reel Festivals as part of Reel Iraq 2013 and funded by Literature Across Frontiers and the British Council.

Filmed in Shaqlawa and Erbil, Northern Iraq in January 2013.

The plot summary at IMDb calls In the Beginning

an experimental film based on a poem by the acclaimed and award winning Iraqi poet, Zaher Mousa. The poem uses the form of a creation myth and explores the feelings of an Iraqi man living through the realities of life in Baghdad and how the continuing violence and conflicts have affected the way he sees the world around him.

In the Beginning was selected for screening at the 2014 ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. As for Reel Iraq 2013, it was apparently

an overwhelming success and audiences across the UK got a chance to engage directly with Iraqi poets, filmmakers, artists, writers and musicians.

Highlights included workshops in Erbil as part of the Erbil Literature Festival which led to the creation of new translations of Iraqi poets Zaher Mousa, Awezan Nouri, Ghareeb Iskander and Sabreen Kadhim and of Scotland based poets Jen Hadfield, William Letford, John Glenday and Krystelle Bamford. These new translations were performed at venues across the UK.

Musicians Khyam Allami and City of Salt performed to packed venues in Edinburgh and London, and filmmakers Parine Jaddo and Hayder Daffer presented their work in cinemas across the country.

Reel Festivals also commissioned two films based on another poem by Zaher Mousa, “Born to Die,” from filmmakers Alastair Cook and Marc Neys (Swoon). I shared them in a post back in 2013.

Af’a Gilgamesh / Gilgamesh’s Snake (excerpt) by Ghareeb Iskander

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A great poetry film by Roxana Vilk, combining videopoem (with an English translation in subtitles by John Glenday) and a brief explanation of the poem by its author, Iraqi poet Ghareeb Iskander. This combination is one Vilk has used to good effect in other films, too, but for some reason I missed this one until now, when I spotted it thanks to its inclusion in the ZEBRA Poetry Film Club channel on Vimeo. The unusually complete Vimeo description includes Vilk’s description of her process, so let me reproduce it in full:

This film is a result of a commission from Reel Festivals as part of Reel Iraq 2013 and funded by Literature Across Frontiers and the British Council.

Based on a poem by Ghareeb Iskander, Directed/Produced & filmed by Roxana Vilk, Edited by Maryam Ghorbankarimi and Sound Design & Music Peter Vilk, Poem translation by John Glenday, bridging translation by Lauren Pyott and Assistant Director James Sadri.

In January 2013 I was invited to create films inspired by poets and poems I encountered from both Iraq and Scotland as part of the Reel Iraq festival in Erbil. It was an incredible trip and an honour to work with Reel Festivals again.

I first heard Ghareeb Iskander’s poem, during a magical evening in the mountain village of Shaqlawa when the poets were sharing the fruits of the first days of translating each others works over a glass of wine.. or two….

As John Glenday read out in English his translation of Ghareeb’s poem, I was immediately struck by the imagery in it and how the sentiment resonated with how I felt on coming to Iraq for the first time – a mixture of feeling the weight of the history mixed with an aching sense of loss.

I should also add at this point that the poem in the film is an extract of a much longer work (in three acts) on Gilgamesh.

Image wise I was drawn to empty sites across Erbil. First of all the many building sites that lay scattered across much of the city and how they had this haunted quality – almost like abandoned old theatres.

I was also drawn to filming in the empty ancient Citadel in the centre of Erbil which dates back over 3,000 years and had 3 years ago been emptied of its inhabitants to be preserved as a UNESCO site.

Both these locations resonated with the emotional landscape in Ghareeb’s poem for me and also lent visual space to house the images he was creating in the language.

It was pouring with torrential rain for most of our trip which seemed fitting in some way with the sound world of Ghareeb’s poem and one morning I asked him to walk through an empty building site, reciting his poem in his mind, as the rain dripped loudly on the floor of the empty site.

In terms of colour I wanted to reflect back Erbil exactly as I encountered it in January – devoid of much colour and somehow the locations had a monochromatic feel. So our ever sharp eyed editor Maryam Ghorbankarimi and I worked together strip the images back of colour and then use just touches of colour to create contrast.

Sound designer and composer Peter Vilk used the found real location sounds I had recorded Iraq ( such as the rain) which he then treated and manipulated with his software to create his sound design score, alongside a melody he wrote on the piano.

For those interested in technicals – I filmed on a Canon 7D and captured separate sound on a Zoom stereo Mic, synching the sound later in the edit.

Commissioned by Reel Festivals as part of their Iraq Project 2013 and funded by Literature Across Frontiers and the British Council.

For more of Roxana film works please visit roxanavilk.com

Iskander explained the two-step English translation process in an interview at Arabic Literature (in English).

The Songs by Choman Hardi

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Kurdish poet Choman Hardi in a videopoem uploaded to Vimeo by the UK think-tank Counterpoint. (No editor or videographer is credited.) Here’s the Vimeo description:

Poet Choman Hardi recorded her poem ‘The Songs’, in 2004 at the British Council in London for their think-tank Counterpoint. The performance appeared first on a multimedia CD Rom exploring the theme of memory and migration. The CD containing perspectives on this topic from photography, creative writing, psychotherapy and cognitive neuroscience is still available free from Counterpoint. Email counterpoint [at] britishcouncil.org (replace [at] with the symbol @)

Eleven years on, Hardi’s second collection of poems in English, Considering the Women, was published last month by Bloodaxe — who, by the way, have just debuted a new website. (Check out the multimedia section.)

Born to Die by Zaher Mousa

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One poem, one cameraman, two films! Reel Festivals commissioned both Alastair Cook and Swoon (Marc Neys) to make films for a piece by the Iraqi poet Zaher Mousa, using footage shot in Iraq by American poet Ryan Van Winkle. Here’s how Alastair introduced his film (the first one above) on Vimeo:

Born to Die is a poem by Iraqi poet Zaher Mousa and is in his native Arabic. There are no subtitles, as I want you to hear to the emotion in this great poet’s voice. The English text of the poem is available on the Vimeo site if you click through. Born to Die was a commission from Reel Festivals and was shot in Iraq for Filmpoem by Ryan van Winkle. It is a pair with Swoon, with him making the English language counterpart translated by Lauren Pyott and read by Jen Hadfield; this is the second film we have paired, the first being Aan Het Water.

These films are part of a larger collaboration between Reel Festivals and Zaher Mousa. Check out Mousa’s essay, “Reel Festivals – Dialogue through Poetry.”

“The Poet of Baghdad”: Nabeel Yasin

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There’s a real dearth of English-subtitled Arabic poetry recitation on the web; this goes a small way toward righting the balance. It’s interesting to see how poetry is chanted or sung in Arabic, rather than simply read (much less mumbled). Another thing that might be a little difficult for some of us to get our heads around is a poet becoming so popular that he could be branded an enemy of the state, and his works become a relying cry for people opposed to the established order. Such was the case with Nabeel Yasin, Iraq’s most celebrated poet (and last year, an unsuccessful candidate for prime minister), who has been compared to Bob Dylan in his impact on Iraqi society from the late 60s on.

“The Poet of Baghdad” was directed by Georgie Weedon for Al Jazeera, and has just been re-uploaded to YouTube as a single video. The blending of poetry recitation with reminiscence is very effective, I think, and the reflections on exile will probably resonate with emigrants, voluntary and involuntary, from many lands. Al Jazeera posted an interview with the director in early 2010.