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Young Baghdad: een documentaire en een gespreksavond

“It’s always about Iraq. It’s quite rare to hear young people from Baghdad speak out as they do here.”

In 2015 organiseerde Mokhallad Rasem een theaterworkshop in Bagdad voor een groep studenten van het Conservatorium en de Theateropleiding van de Universiteit van Bagdad. Met het videomateriaal dat hij daar verzamelde, maakte hij de documentaire Young Baghdad, die op 13 en 14 oktober 2016 als preview getoond werd in Antwerpen. Aansluitend ging Mokhallad in gesprek met dramaturg Erwin Jans en per avond een andere extra spreker: de eerste avond was dat journalist Gie Goris en de avond erna filosoof Lieven De Cauter. Een verslag van de twee avonden.

Dream and reality

In the discussion that followed the screening, Mokhallad explained (among other things) how the workshop came about. When he left for Baghdad, he had no intention of organizing a workshop, but did so at the request of several friends and young people he met there. 

The central theme of the workshop was dreams and reality. So the idea was not to teach the young people to act, but first and foremost to make them listen to themselves and to give hope. As Mokhallad explains: “Young people there live in constant fear, so they don’t have the chance to reflect on their situation or to dream. But talking about it creates a bond between them.” 

It is almost unheard of for drama students in Iraq to have the chance to experience a workshop like Mokhallad’s. Apart from the powerful National Theatre, there is no real theatre structure in Iraq and there is no place for young people. So much money is invested in defending the country against the so-called IS that little is spent on subsidizing culture. It is certainly not easy for girls to make a stage career, because in the Iraqi tradition the theatre is still often associated with licentiousness and prostitution. 


Mokhallad did a number of exercises with the students and in each one a circular motion occurred as a ritual. After these more physically demanding exercises, he asked questions ranging from the straightforward like “Are you hungry?” to “What is your dream?” In a separate room and afterwards also for the public, each of the young people described their dream while being filmed. These dreams are shown in the documentary. As some dreams are still taboo in Iraqi society, they are sometimes told in a different way. Subjects like religion and Islam were approached with particular caution. At the end of the three-day workshop, the dreams and a few exercises were also shown to the public. Members of the audience interacted in the last show and one or two also recounted their dream.   


Iraqis have their say

The documentary made an impression on both Gie Goris and Lieven De Cauter for one reason in particular: Iraqis are given a voice. Or as Lieven put it: “It’s always about Iraq. Usually it’s whites or the dispersed airing their views, so it is quite rare to hear young people from Baghdad speak out as they do here.” Gie commented that images produced in the media always focus on the war, on IS, previously on Al Qaida, but never on the millions of ordinary people leading human lives in Iraq.    


He was interested to learn that despite all the violence and destruction and violence of the war, young people still dream. “You live only by the grace of the dream”. Lieven was also taken aback by the boldness of the statements, as well as by the fact that almost all those interviewed seemed to want to get away from the Holy, which he finds very encouraging. He believes this message is contained in almost all the statements and that the young people think very universally. Later on this was qualified by Mokhallad who pointed out that the workshop participants came from the small 5% of the more free-thinking and open minority in Iraq; the remaining Iraqis still cling to religion.   


A life of war

Many of the dreams contain memories of the war that raged in Iraq. Most of the young people had spent at least half of their life in a war situation. Furthermore, according to Mokhallad, the period after the war is even more destructive than the war itself, because people are now realizing that the war hasn’t changed or solved anything. Consequently, Iraqis have become mistrustful of politics. 

Mokhallad deliberately chose not to speak about politics, because people there hate politics. The people have no voice, despite the many demonstrations which millions of people took part in every Friday for a long time.    


Archive becomes performance  

The formal aspects of the documentary were praised by both speakers. The material is quite ‘raw’. Mokhallad sees it more as an archive than as a film proper. He regards archive material as very important, particularly now that so much of the Iraqi culture has been destroyed in the war, stolen or sold. In the documentary and the presentation of the workshop, the archive becomes the actual performance.


In the film Mokhallad chose to preserve the purity of the theatrical form, and only after the statements does he show several images of Iraq which he filmed specifically with reference to the dreams. For example, he shows images of a seemingly endless wall. For Mokhallad the wall symbolizes Iraq as a prison, reflecting the sense of confinement that Iraqis feel in their home country. Like the exercise involving the ever-recurring circle, the interminable wall stands for a country where nothing has changed for thirteen, fourteen years.   

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