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New Film "Iraqi Odyssey" Dispels Western Images of Life in Iraq—Past and Present: A Conversation with the Director of the Film, Samir

posted on: Nov 11, 2015

BY: Adrian Tafesh/Contributing Writer

Documentary filmmaking is an art that is first and foremost engaged in truth-seeking. We want to see real stories told in narrative so that the new perspective may provide us with some previously unseen truth. There are those documentaries who take that truth and actively use it to dismantle some accepted notions, rather than simply shed light on a subject. Fundamentally, Iraqi Odyssey, the new film from Iraqi-Swiss filmmaker Samir, seeks to take its truth and use it to upset popular western ideas of life in the Arab world, past and present.

Iraqi Odyssey chronicles the complex history of the director’s family in Iraq, and establishes them as the vehicle by which the film will upend orientalist notions of the Arab world. “I wanted to honor this generation of my uncles and aunts, of my father, because they stood for an idea of Arab modernity without being culturally, colonially, guided by the west.”

This is the central premise of the film, that the people of Iraq for much of their history have lived in complex and stable civil societies complete with their own traditions of intellectualism and modernity. These were not places in competition with the west, but rather, they independently developed forms of social and political life that Europeans claimed as uniquely their own. This is not the Iraq of the orientalist paintings or the hellish war-scape of today’s popular logic.

“Even in the first place when I was financing the film, I would hear “oh all of your aunts and uncles are studied people, intellectual people. I would think, is this something special? But at the same time it helped, because they said “this is something exceptional, it should be told.” This is a condescension not unfamiliar to many Arabs in the west. Even the most well-intentioned westerners seem to consider the Arab world in terms of popular tropes, and are deeply surprised when they gain a more nuanced understanding of the region.


Director of Iraqi Odyssey, Samir

Samir is aware of the split focus his films naturally adopt when he considers his audience. “I have really two different audiences, the globalized Arab migrants who are living everywhere, and they compare their lives to the story” This is an important point. Samir’s film is significant in part because of what it reveals to western audiences about a world they really know little about, but it is equally significant for the ideas and memories that it reinforces for people from that part of the world. And yet, what is most striking to the director himself is the response from people outside of the Arab culture. “I was surprised how much impact the film had on this western public…people would sit in the theater shocked at the role that the west played in the middle east. It was almost like you were holding up a mirror to them.”

At over two and a half hours Iraqi Odyssey is an exhaustive search for understanding. Over the course of that time conversations are had between the narrator and his uncles and aunts, that reveal the family history. This may sound daunting, but it is the kind of meticulous care that must be taken in order to insure a worthwhile exploration of a complex past. The film winds through stories of intellectual life, romance, and underground activism. To be sure, Samir’s family story is in many ways unique, and yet he has had no trouble finding people who can relate. A wealth of these family histories exist in the regions near past, and many are proud to see their stories represented in such a way.

The goal now will be to find an audience in the United States that will receive the documentary in the same way it has been received in Switzerland, where it was a blockbuster, and the rest of Europe. There is one audience which will attract particular attention. “Tomorrow morning I will leave for LA and stay for about two weeks…I will have at least seven screenings with Q&A’s…one screening with the Academy,” said Samir. That’s THE Academy. Odyssey is Switzerland’s official submission to the Oscars, and over the next few weeks Academy members will determine whether the film deserves to be nominated.

However, this seems to take a backseat in importance to Samir, who remains focused on the larger goal of the film. “The American film industry, is truly an industry, and they want to control it. I’m not really looking for the nomination. If we are short-listed then great, but the so-called side effect is the most important part to me, to be seen by people who are really interested in the topic.”

With some luck, the film could grab a nomination and gain the notoriety it needs in order to reach a wider audience, and that would undoubtedly be a good thing. The value of proper historical context cannot be underestimated, and this film provides it in droves. Samir sums up the importance of the documentary perfectly, “When we have screened the film in the west, people would always come up to me afterword and say “I didn’t know, I just didn’t know.”

For more information about Iraqi Odyssey’s U.S. debut Click Here.