At its press launch in September, the Baghdad Film Festival looked as if it might herald a return to the glory days before the Iran-Iraq war. Over 300 films were promised, from 60 countries, with challenging strands focusing on female Arab directors and on human rights. Sadly, the reality proved to be very different, illutrating the crisis that has overtaken a once thriving industry.
Eventually screening just 100 films, the event suffered from a lack of government support, a shortage of sponsors and an ever-shrinking guest list. According to journalist Mohamad Ali Harissi, speeches were inaudible due to audience conversations and awards were produced from plastic carrier bags. Festival director Ammar al-Aradi has put the problems down to a lack of funds. Since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, Iraq's cinema-going tradition, already weakened by lack of state funding, has collapsed. For much of the last decade, Baghdad, once home to 82 cinemas, had no fully functional ones remaining, though recent efforts by local entrepreneur Zaid Fadhel have seen a tentative rebuilding programme begin.
Complicating the situation is a volatile political situation in which extremism threatens the intellectual and artistic traditions on which the country's film industry was built. Just last month, dozens of men were beaten when a cinema club was raided by state security personnel. Raids like this are often inspired by hostility to homosexuality, as cinemas are perceived as places where gay men meets. They have also come to be associated with pornography, since pornographic cinema has continued to flourish underground even in such straitened times.
Despite all these problems, it is understood that the film festival will return next year. Al-Aradi has argued that it is essential to helping a new generation of Iraqi directors hone their talents and secure the country's creative future.