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Entries in Iraqi Cinema (1)



In Paris overnight, before an audience at the world headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), director Shawkat Amin Korki screened his acclaimed third feature, Memories on Stone. A film-within-a-film account of a disparate crew’s efforts to produce an epic based upon the horrific Al Anfar genocide, the Iraqi/German co-production earned the honour after having taken out the prestigious UNESCO Award at the 2014 Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA) in Brisbane last November. A few hours before he accepted the trophy (pictured, below; with presenter, actor Jack Thompson) he sat with SCREEN-SPACE to discuss his most personal and acclaimed film to date…

“It is sort of a backstage version of production on my previous films,” said the softly spoken Korki, 42, a Kurdish Iraqi native who has lived in self-imposed exile in Iran for over two decades. Having fled the regime that ruthlessly controlled his homeland, he has forged an international career with his films Crossing the Dust (2006) and Kick Off (2009) finding audience and festival favour globally. Says the director,  “Memories on Stone is an account of many of the experiences that Kurdistani filmmakers must endure when filming in our homeland.” The script was developed after having received in 2011 the Motion Picture Association APSA Academy Film Fund.

The moving, darkly humourous narrative follows childhood friends Hussein (Hussein Hassan) and Alan (Nazmi Kirik) and the tumultuous personal and social hurdles they must overcome to film their pet project – a bigscreen take on the murder of 180,000 Iraqi Kurds under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. From the powerful prologue that puts in context the importance of cinema for both Hussein and his countrymen, we meet such vivid characters as the egocentric celebrity Roj Azad (Suat Usta; pictured, right centre) and Sinur, the meek, troubled teacher (Shima Molaei; pictured, below) who must face her own terrible memories of the massacre if she is to honourably portray victims of the killings.

“The many characters made it very difficult to write,” recalls Korki, “but we were able to focus on Sinur and Roj as key characters. They push the story, even though there are many stories. But somehow, Sinur make’s (the story) very unique and binds all the thematic strands together.”

With meagre budgetary support available and strict controls on content in place, filmmaking in the sector falls to impassioned artists like Shawkat Amin Korki to bring their ambitious visions to life. With Memories of Stone, the task the director set himself was manifestly more difficult. “It was like making two movies but with only one budget,” he recalls. “We shot the two movies concurrently with each other. My co-writer and producer Mahmet Ashktar, and I did not expect it to be such a huge and difficult production for our region, but when we started shooting it proved very difficult, both with the budget and the condition present in Kurdistan.”

In addition to his skill as a storyteller, Korki displays a deft technical touch, switching between film stock and aspect ratios to further delineate between his shoot and the fictional production. “While we were shooting, I knew we had to make the two different films somehow very distinctive,” he recalls. “We shot on different cameras, but I wasn’t sure about switching between 1:85 scope and the (wider) frame to convey the (two narratives) until much later. That decision came during post-production, but proved difficult because I hadn’t shot to the specifics required.”

For Shawkat Amin Korki, his vision for Memories on Stone was as a contemporary testament to the centuries of hardship his fellow Kurds had suffered. “Kurdistan has many tragic moments in its history, perhaps none bigger than Al Anfar,” he states. “The film-inside-the-film was not (originally) about that event, it was more about our old history, but I decided to make it about our present. It is the people of modern Kurdistan that are interpreting our nation’s past and it’s suffering through art and their stories.”

Footnote: As part of the UNESCO screening event in Paris, APSA Executive Chairman Michael Hawkins made the announcement that Shawkat Amin Korki will act as Chair of the APSA Youth Animation and Documentary International Jury for the 2015 APSA ceremony.