Director Maysoon Pachachi: The Iraqi people are not silent ‘victims’, they must tell their own stories

With this year marking the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, the filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi reflects on the conception of her feature Our River... Our Sky and why Iraqi civilians must be centred in the West’s telling of the ongoing conflict.

I am a filmmaker of Iraqi origin, and while I have deep roots in that country, I’ve lived in London for many years and have campaigned against the decades of dictatorship, war and sanctions that have been imposed on the people of my home country. In 2004, I returned to Baghdad for the first time in 35 years. I wandered the streets filming, connected with the people and places I hadn’t seen since my childhood, and co-founded a free-of-charge training centre for those who were interested in film. I have largely been a documentary filmmaker, but in 2019, in Iraq, I shot my first fiction feature, Our River… Our Sky, an ensemble of intersecting stories that unfold over the last week of 2006 in Baghdad — a time of intense violence and nightly curfews.

When the US invaded and occupied Iraq, it set up a governing council based on sectarian lines, and for the people of Iraq, who had lived in a pluralist society for most of their lives, this war came as a shock. People from different religions and sects who had lived in the same place all their lives suddenly found that neighbourhoods in Baghdad were being divided, and that lifelong friends could no longer visit each other. And families where the mother and father were of different religions were forbidden from living under the same roof. It was like a wrecking ball had been taken to the country. At the same time, a particularly violent branch of al-Qaeda became present in Iraq, because the US forces had failed to establish strong control of the country’s borders. In early 2006, one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam was blown up by al-Qaeda; this ignited a civil war in the country and especially in the capital, Baghdad. It impacted absolutely everyone, and so my co-writer, the Baghdad-based novelist Irada Al-Jubori, and I decided that the traditional set-up of one central character and story was wrong for us.

There are two images that underlie our conception of the film. The first was the image of Iraq for me in 2006: a mirror drops and shatters, you collect all the pieces and stick them back together into the mirror’s original shape, but still it remains fractured. Second, we wanted the feature to be like a Persian miniature market, where in every frame another story is being told, so you get the sense of a collective story taking place during one singular place and time. In our film Sara is a novelist, who, silenced by the violence around her, is unable to write one word of fiction. As a single mother she tried to protect her nine-year-old daughter by banning her from watching the news and playing in the street, but Reema knows more than she lets on and in her own way tries to protect her mother. At the same time Abu Haider is a drunk. Three years ago in the bombing when Iraq was invaded, he lost his wife and two daughters, and now only has his teenage son, Haider, who is slowly being drawn into a violent gang.

People who live in war zones are often only depicted as victims, when no one solely thinks of themselves as just a “victim”. This generalisation makes it hard for those living in different circumstances to relate to such people. But audiences at screenings of our film across Europe and the US repeatedly told us: “I asked myself what I would have done in such a situation.” Having audiences that are not Iraqi reach this level of intimacy with the characters in our film has been remarkable. I believe it was possible because Irada and I, as Iraqis, were able to create authentic characters and focus on their everyday lives.

I was not in Iraq in 2006 but was constantly in touch with people there. Every day, someone we knew had been killed or kidnapped, but still the people on the ground were able to sustain a fragile sense of hope that got them out of bed each morning and out the door. This resilience, not the violence or blood on the streets, is what interested me. Iraq, at the time, became something of a joke factory. In one instance, there was a bus full of people on their way to work, stuck in a traffic jam. Someone running between the cars was tragically shot, and once the shooting stopped, people inside the bus started making jokes about how many more opportunities they each had that day to be killed.

During the 1991 Gulf War, I was glued to the TV watching tracery fire over Baghdad’s night sky and bridges being blown up by “smart” bombs, but I never saw one ordinary Iraqi person speaking about what was happening. It was as if the country and the people in it were being erased off the face of the Earth. I was in shock; I felt as if I had forgotten my own name, my age and the simple words I had been speaking my whole life, like “chair”, “table”, “window”, “salt”… I reacted by making a film for Channel 4 where we interviewed a wide variety of Iraqi women living in exile in London. They talked about their early lives and their experience living under the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein. I now realise that making that film was my resistance to the silencing of the Iraqi people.

Maysoon Pachachi by Eugenie Dolberg

Irada and I met in Amman in Jordan to write the first draft of Our River… Our Sky back in 2010. It took eight years to raise the funding for the film, and in the UK people were doubtful about the non-traditional way we were proposing to tell our story. But our breakthrough moment came in 2012 when the script won the IWC script prize at the Dubai International Film Festival, where Cate Blanchett was head of the jury.

Then came the actual making of the film. Our cast consisted of professional and non-professional actors from Iraq and its diaspora. I’ve often said that making this feature was a series of catastrophes and miracles. Suddenly we would lose actors just before shooting and then sure enough someone who was perfect for the role would turn up — sometimes they were members of the crew, or once, one of the country’s most famous and beloved actors stepped in after another cast member had a heart attack, just because he was interested in the film and wanted to help.

The first part of the film was shot in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, in northern Iraq. It came shortly after Isis had been defeated in the country and people were still wary. We didn’t experience problems in the city, but some of our actors and crew had been through terrifying experiences. One of our actors was from Mosul, the beautiful historical city that was virtually destroyed by Isis. His experience was traumatic, there was no refuge anywhere and he was constantly on the run, trying to hide from the terrorist group.

The second half of the filming was in my hometown, Baghdad. It was essential to shoot there for me, because the Tigris river — the heart and soul of the city — was so important to our film. My grandparents had lived by the river, and for me, being in their house was always a way to come back “home” to Baghdad. Luckily I had a very supportive crew, who had lived in the city all their lives, and they made it their business to reacquaint me with my hometown.

March of this year marked the 20th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. Today, people are horrified by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but they seem to have forgotten that there was a precedent set in the illegal US-led invasion of sovereign Iraq in 2003 — a decision that was based on lies and misinformation. I hope our film is seen widely, especially by audiences in the US and the UK. I hope it helps engender an awareness of how war can affect the lives of ordinary people.

Iraqis feel like their country has been stolen from them. It is run by militias and corrupt politicians, and it is against this that a massive uprising erupted in October 2019. It was led by young people, dodging bullets and tear gas, who demanded an end to foreign intervention, endemic corruption and the power of the militias. “We want a homeland” became their slogan. Huge numbers streamed into Tahrir Square in central Baghdad to join people of different religions, sects and classes. Some came from other cities or the countryside. There were grandparents, schoolchildren, doctors to treat the injured, and art students who painted murals… These people, young and old, want their country back. Iraq belongs to them. It is in them that my hope for the country resides.

WriterMaysoon Pachachi