Humpty Dumpty Institute In The Press
Operation Iraqi Filmmakers
July 7, 2013
LOS ANGELES — In most ways, it was a typical Sunday evening house party in the Venice neighborhood here. A pool. A band. A mix of Hollywood types. A couple of vegetarian options. And one neighbor complaining about the noise.
“I’m distraught!” cried the neighbor, a woman who had materialized at the home’s back door. “I’m exhausted. I have to work. You have to stop!” The host assured her the music would last only a little while and sent her on her way. The band kicked off another number. It was 6:50 p.m.
The guests were urged to get something to eat. “I don’t know,” said Yasir Kareem, 27, waving his hands theatrically in the air. “The distraught woman might be back.” The message seemed pretty clear: Back home in Baghdad, noisy parties aren’t something people tend to complain about.
But here in Los Angeles, almost everything was a surprise for Mr. Kareem and his four fellow travelers, aspiring filmmakers from Iraq in town for a week of education and revelations, including the sort available on the Venice Beach boardwalk.
“They haven’t seen people from different countries, or people dancing on the beach,” said Atia al-Daradji, 47. “Or the beach. Or half-naked women.” With his brother, the director Mohamed al-Daradji (“Son of Babylon”), Mr. Daradji founded the Iraqi Independent Film Center in Baghdad, which works with would-be filmmakers and selected the group for the American trip. “They’re young,” he said, smiling. “They will definitely come away with a different view of the world. They’re already asking, ‘Why don’t we have this in Iraq?’ ”
What they definitely don’t have at home is a film industry, something being addressed, at least to a degree, by the nonprofit International Film Exchange. The exchange brought the students over from Baghdad where, several weeks before, the filmmaker Bill Megalos of Los Angeles had conducted a 10-day workshop on storytelling and editing. The exchange is devoted primarily to cultural give and take and international understanding. But in the case of the Iraqis, it may help create a base of knowledgeable filmmakers, a “crew” as the young men themselves called it. Since the economic sanctions imposed after the first gulf war, making films in Iraq has become all but impossible.
“It was my family business,” said the bearish Salam S. Mazeel, 35, whose mother was a sound designer, and who wants to be a cinematographer like his father. “But in the ’90s, everything stopped. We go to the hard times. No money, no hope.”
After his father died, his mother quit the business to raise her children; there was no cinema anyway. “That’s how it was,” Mr. Mazeel said. “Now, maybe something is different and we come to America and there are a few things in our minds. Like how to apply American rules to Iraqi movies.”
Instruction on the rules arrived in various ways. On the leafy campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, Mr. Mazeel and his colleagues — including a redheaded 21-year-old, Omid Khald, who had responded to the Pacific by jumping into it — were hearing from people like the former Universal Pictures chairman David Linde and the screenwriter Linda Voorhees, who talked about financing and story structure.
During a trip to the Westwood neighborhood and its old-style movie palaces, the Iraqis got to see what some of them had never seen: a film in a theater (“Man of Steel,” about which they were lukewarm). The Sunday party at Mr. Megalos’s home had been attended by several film veterans, including the director Jeremy Kagan and the Oscar-winning screenwriter Barry Morrow (“Rain Man”), who talked to the young men about their expectations, their scripts and the films they plan to make this summer in Iraq. (Bringing over female students was a cultural impossibility; young Iraqi women cannot travel with unrelated men.)
“They’re so hungry,” Mr. Morrow said. “I’m afraid of giving them bad information, maybe saying something flippant that they take the wrong way.”
Mr. Megalos agreed: “They take things very literally."
Mr. Morrow said the Socratic method was best: “They were asking me, ‘What do you think of Tarkovsky?’ And you have to flip it. ‘What do you think of Tarkovsky?’ ”
The conversation about Andrei Tarkovsky symbolizes the culture gap at hand. Years ago, Iraqi filmmakers would regularly attend VGIK, the Moscow film school; Iraqi film was influenced far more by European than American cinema. In Los Angeles, the Iraqi visitors were being advised by almost everyone to make their stories clear, to emphasize narrative over style.
“Hollywood movies travel everywhere,” said Kate Moulene, chief marketing officer of the Humpty Dumpty Institute, which runs the International Film Exchange. “They’ve figured out here how to tell stories to the greatest number of people.”
What would help make the filmmaker exchange a success, Ms. Moulene said, was if the Iraqis took away a little of that sensibility and applied it to their homegrown projects, which will be made, once they return to Baghdad, with financing from the United States Embassy. “But it’s also good for them to know what the options are,” she added.
As Mr. Khald noted, “I’ve never even seen a 35-millimeter camera.”
The five visitors got to see the facilities at U.C.L.A., the Hollywood production company Blue Collar, the Hollywood sign (naturally) and “World War Z” in 3-D, even though the prospect had been making Mr. Megalos apprehensive. “They might not have the love of zombies that Americans do,” he said. There was a split decision: The younger men loved it; the older were dismissive. (“America and Hollywood,” they said, “save the world.”)
Mr. Megalos has run filmmaking workshops for nonprofit organizations in Uganda, Kenya and Laos, which was where he came to the attention of David Prettyman, chief strategic officer for the Humpty Dumpty Institute. The institute’s original mission was mine clearance, and “we still do that,” said Mr. Prettyman, who was acting as the Iraqis’ escort in Hollywood. “But our interests have expanded to cultural understanding, cultural diplomacy, educating the U.S. public about rest of world and working with the U.N. to do that.” When the group decided to set up the Baghdad workshop, financing came from the United States Embassy there, and someone suggested that Mr. Megalos, an institute newcomer, participate.
“The students said that meeting me in Baghdad was important,” Mr. Megalos said, “because I was the first American they’d met who was not in uniform, and to them that meant a worldview that’s broader than a military mission.”
“Once they got to L.A.,” he said, “they met a lot a of different people, but meeting me first and spending 12 to 15 hours a day together, showed them a different view of Americans beyond their stereotypes.”
Which is precisely the point, said one of the institute’s founders, William J. Rouhana. “We had this event,” he said, referring to the Global Creative Forum, “where we were bringing the Hollywood community into our work. But the logical step was bringing film industry professionals to other countries. And any time different peoples are talking it’s a good thing.”
Like his compatriots, Mr. Kareem brought with him an original short-film script; and like his compatriots’ stories, his was about a child, in this case a 9-year-old girl who scavenges scrap metal to sell, saving money for a school uniform. One day, she finds a uniform while looking through some trash. “The tagline,” Mr. Kareem said, “is: ‘A Girl Finds What She Dreams About in the Garbage.’ ”
That all the students are making films about children is no coincidence: Back in Baghdad, Mohamed al-Daradji told them that films about kids would provide entree into international festivals.
And even though he’d never seen an animated film in a theater, Sajjad Abbas, the youngest of the travelers at 19, was planning to make one. “It’s the story of a child who is being persecuted and wants to become a superhero,” he said.
Does he succeed?
Read this article at: The New York Times