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Qarantina: Film Screening and Discussion

Speaker: Oday Rasheed, Writer and Director, "Qarantina"
Presider: Deborah S. Amos, Foreign Correspondent, National Public Radio
January 25, 2012
Council on Foreign Relations

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NED PARKER (Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): You know, I just want to thank you all for coming here tonight. I think we're in for a real treat. We're very lucky to have the film director Oday Rasheed here and his movie Qarantina. Qarantina is a story about an Iraqi hitman, amongst other things. I first saw the movie last summer in Baghdad, where I was working as a bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

My name is Ned Parker, by the way. I'm the press fellow at the council this year.

So I was in Baghdad last summer, and I'd say that the Upper East Side is slightly different than Baghdad, just a bit. But the movie -- when I heard there was a film about an Iraqi hitman, I really wanted to see it because assassins in Baghdad have become a phenomenon in the post-Saddam Hussein era. It's hard to go by a day without hearing a story of an assassination on the streets of Baghdad, a person being killed by a man with a silencer and a pistol. It just goes on and on.

So to see a movie about the phenomenon -- I was intrigued. I thought, cool; will this be like Reservoir Dogs or Terminator? (Chuckles.) But in fact, it was actually a very great, you know, wonderful film, and you know, I would say it's about far more than the phenomenon of Iraq's civil war or hitmen. It's just a great movie. I mean, it would be an injustice to call it just a movie about a killer. It would be like saying "The Godfather" is just about a mafia don.

So you know, with no further ado, I'd like to introduce Igor from the Global Film Initiative, who will talk a little bit more about the film and his institute, which brings a lot of great foreign films to the United States.

So thank you all for being here tonight. (Applause.)

IGOR KIRMAN (board member, Global Film Initiative): Thank you, Ned.

It -- my name is Igor Kirman. I'm actually a volunteer for the Global Film Initiative. I'm on the board. I don't work there. So I believe in this cause. And it's a privilege for me to be here in this important venue to help you guys screen a very important film.

I'm going to tell you just a little bit about the Global Film Initiative. We are an organization that was founded in 2003, and our mission is to support foreign film from emerging nations in the United States. And we do it in three different ways. We have a granting program that supports foreign filmmakers around the world. We have an educational component that supports, you know, these films in American schools, at the college and high-school level. And perhaps most importantly, and that which brings us here tonight, we have a distribution arm which picks up 10 different films around the world from emerging nations and screens them here in the United States as part of our Global Lens traveling series, which is shown in 35 to 50 different cities in the United States.

And since our founding, about 285,000 Americans have seen these films in theaters. And these are films that may not otherwise see the inside of an American theater. For those of you who know something about the appetite for foreign film in America, unfortunately, it's declining, and distributors economically are very risk-averse to pick up many of these films. And they're important films that need to be seen.

I wanted to spend a little bit of time talking about our mission, but I only have two minutes, so I wanted to maybe just make one observation in the form of a question. And I bet you this sophisticated audience could easily tell me which country in the world produces the most number of films. India, right? A lot of Indian -- and it's not -- I was going to give you a hint that it's not the U.S., but no hint needed in this crowd.

But I'm wondering how many people in this audience actually know the number two country on that list. It's not Iraq. Any other guesses? Not Iran. Not China. It's Nigeria. This is actually quite surprising. "Nollywood" -- it actually has a name. And in Nigeria, these are low-budget films. The average shoot is about two weeks. The average cost is about $15,000. And these films go straight to the man on the street; they bypass theaters altogether.

And I think that, you know, not a lot of you have seen Nigerian movies. And I put myself in that -- in that number. And I think it's a tragedy, and I think that, you know, we are here to work on this problem. We think that these kinds of films show the world in a way that even educated people who read news headlines don't see it, from the inside, a very local perspective. And we think that's important not only from a cultural perspective -- we believe in that -- but also -- and this crowd should understand -- also from a political, a diplomatic and even a national security perspective.

And so please enjoy this film, and it's our pleasure to bring it to you guys.

DEBORAH AMOS: We're going to have about a half-hour discussion. I'm Deb Amos with National Public Radio. I can't tell you how honored I am to be on this stage. I wrote about Oday's films before I ever met him. I saw the first one a couple of years ago, and this one is just equally stunning.

I'm going to ask about 15 minutes worth of questions. Then I'm going to open it to the audience.

The thing that strikes me watching the film is: It's so quiet.

ODAY RASHEED: Yeah.

AMOS: In a city that I've never known to be quiet. You must have thought that out.

RASHEED: Absolutely.

AMOS: And sort of talk a little bit about why it was so important to make a quiet film.

RASHEED: Well, I don't know about quiet. I mean, you know, I think it's -- it's a different kind of sounds. And this is a city with a reputation with a -- really loud voices. So I was looking for something else with the human inside the city, and also the images inside the city, and definitely the sounds. So I think it's -- it's an attempt to build the relationship between the subject, the characters, the theme, and the image and the sound.

People in this film, they talk less than -- maybe are quiet. But this is the way that I saw things. And I believe that's the most important thing in Baghdad is -- are the things never being said. And usually nobody talk about it, but you see it as a result. You see -- you hear a father (smother ?) his daughter for a reason; you -- personally, I hear like one of my friend be an assassin; or one of my cousin, they only found his head. So it's -- and this is all go through a very non-said attitude. So that we are -- we are -- we are very good dealing with results, but we're never questioning the result itself.

AMOS: One of the things that is clear in the film is that you -- if you're an assassin, you can't be crazy. If you're an assassin, you have to be rational, you have to know what you're doing.

RASHEED: Yeah. I don't know, I mean -- (chuckles) --

AMOS: But he -- he's essentially taken off and shot because he's crazy.

RASHEED: Yeah -- (chuckles) --

AMOS: And if he hadn't been crazy, that would have been fine.

RASHEED: Yeah.

AMOS: How do Iraqis see that judgment from you when they watch that film?

RASHEED: That's -- it's this character on the -- human like them, you mean, right?

AMOS: Mmm hmm -- well, and you're essentially saying this is part of what Iraq is today; that you have to be rational to be an assassin; that this is part of our society.

RASHEED: I think -- I think this is -- that was the most, you know, embarrassing moment for them, that's, OK, those -- we forget those people who've been killing all around, they are just like us, and they are our son or our cousin or our friend. And we meet on the street, we sell them things, we -- so when they saw that in the film, they were a bit embarrassed, yes.

AMOS: Embarrassed?

RASHEED: Yes. And I -- and I talk with a lot of people about this -- mainly the people who (reject ?) the film in Baghdad. This will be shown for once in Baghdad, and mainly -- there were like about -- it's a big theater, 1,000 people attend the screening. And so it was like -- kind of like two -- you know, two teams; one against the film and the other team is -- which is normal. The people that were against the film, they were -- one of the point that they deliver, they were like saying: Yeah, but he's -- he's just like us. And I said: Yes, he's just like us. Those people who are killing, who are still killing, they are just like us.

AMOS: And that was tough for people to --

RASHEED: Yeah, to accept.

AMOS: To accept.

RASHEED: Yeah. And this is -- this is what I wanted to do, is like to -- the people who did whatever they did in Baghdad or the other parts of Iraq, they are ordinary people. They are not aliens, you know. So we need to see ourself in the mirror much -- in a much clearer way.

AMOS: There's a moment in the film that -- the tank is almost a character unto itself.

RASHEED: Yeah.

AMOS: It sees. It's a(n) unthinking eye, almost.

RASHEED: Yeah.

AMOS: How did that happen? How were you able to -- because obviously, you put the camera inside the tank.

RASHEED: The humvee.

AMOS: -- the tank. How did that happen?

RASHEED: You mean, like, how I thought about it, or --

AMOS: How you thought about it, and how, practically, did you get it done?

RASHEED: OK. No, no, it's -- first, you cannot talk about anything in Baghdad right now without mentioning the U.S. troops. And so for me as a filmmaker, it's impossible to -- you know, budget-wise, to deal with American tanks or equipment. So one of my nephews was playing a video game and I was in the house, and I was, like, what he's doing?

And there was like a big screen and there was, like -- doing this video game. And there was only the gun machine and his point of view killing or destroying. And I said, that's it, this is what should be, you know? And then when I tried it, on video first, it was a very powerful image for me, like -- because the people behind it, they didn't care about being a target, because everybody in the street was a target, right?

Any misunderstanding -- and this happened a lot, you know? Any misunderstanding, this means you are dead. But if you see them, they were like -- they didn't care about -- not the humvee and about -- not the big gun in front of them, and this is what I noted. And so it was a solution and -- production solution and it was a kind of like a -- proved something I was practicing.

How I did it was, like, the ministry of defense in Baghdad, when we were shooting outside, they did offer some protection for us, and there were these few humvees, so I convinced them to put the camera (above there ?), and we did it. (Laughter.)

AMOS: One more question about the characters in the film. The boy is fascinating to watch because you sense that he could go either way.

RASHEED: Exactly.

AMOS: There's a moment where he's looking at his math book and mayhem is happening behind him, and he never looks up.

RASHEED: Yeah.

AMOS: And talk a little bit about kids his age and what you were trying to say with that character.

RASHEED: Well, unfortunately, you know, the literacy in Baghdad right now is a very high rate, like 48 percent of people cannot read and write in Iraq right now. And this is not Iraq, because -- we (talk before the screening ?) -- Iraq in 1980 was, like, 0.0.5 -- 0.05 of the population, they cannot read and write. So that means they're very well educated. And I remember the education system before was very tight and strong, and there was police go on the street collecting the people -- the students or the kids who run out of the school. So it was a kind of very tight education system.

I believe Iraq went through a lot of difficult stations in the last 25 years, 20 years, more, but for me the most terrifying thing is the education, because those people who are the projects to be an assassin, to be a terrorist, to be -- and this is what we are suffering. You've been in Baghdad 2010, and if you walk in the street, the first thing you see is, like, the big amount of kids around you begging and selling you things. And this means -- and if you go a bit, you know, like to the poor neighborhoods, you are surprised for what's going on over there.

And in the same time when I was writing this character, I was, you know, begging myself and the artist inside me to help this kid, to give him a chance. And that's what I did. And I'm happy. You know, maybe it's against -- or it's a statement. I hate statement in cinema, but it is a statement and I'm happy with it.

And also one of the things is the other kid, like the one that (got the ?) knife, he's also a kid. And I was really, really embarrassed, like what shall I do? But -- and then I have this excuse, like, the shape of this -- (inaudible) -- from a more stable family, so they can maybe find the knife and put it out -- (chuckles) -- so --

AMOS: Because he has the Mickey Mouse bag, so he comes from a middle-class family.

RASHEED: Yeah, and -- yeah, so -- yeah, this is -- and this is -- I don't know. I get lost.

AMOS: What does it say about Iraq today that you could make this film in Iraq, you could show it in Iraq, and you could come to New York and talk about it? When you made your film in 2005, it was so dangerous for you that you had to leave the country. But this time, you can come back and forth. Is that a good sign or a more complicated sign?

RASHEED: This is -- this is kind of -- you know, like when a country with 1 million -- 200 people died for a moment of freedom -- I think this is (best ?) that you can get, right?

AMOS: That's it?

RASHEED: Still it's -- I think we are facing another kind and another wave of violence, and I think the war has not ended yet. I believe in this. And I believe there are certain people who are in power right now -- they didn't -- they are not done with what they wanted to do.

And yes, there is a kind of like a -- it's much better than 2007, '8, '6. But there's another kind of targeting. There's another kind of -- there's a shape for a society, for -- in the head of some people which it shouldn't be. And definitely this is against what a lot of Iraqis believe and definitely is against the concept -- the concept of modern society. And so it's the other -- you know, the other face of the coin, the other -- like I said, democracy, but in which direction? What kind of people they are ruling right now when they are -- what they wanted to do?

Let's study what they start to do immediately after the withdrawal. This is a moment -- this is the first nation in the history, with the end of the occupation, there's no celebrating. You know, like, we didn't celebrate this. I went back to history with, like, you know -- (inaudible) -- things like -- which country didn't celebrate, you know, occupation? We are the first, because our politicians, immediately after the withdrawal, they start another kind of war between them. And immediately you can see it in the street. In one day, like, more than 13 car bombs killed I don't know how many Iraqis. Until now I -- today I was talking to friends -- they say, like, it's tense.

AMOS: Not all of the doors, obviously, are closed yet. You were able to make a film, I read, with $200 in your pocket when you came home. But you found some institutional help. Can you talk a little bit about somebody who can be the minister of culture and the minister of defense -- (chuckles) -- at the same time?

RASHEED: Oh, yeah. This is -- yeah.

AMOS: Only in Iraq?

RASHEED: Actually, like, when I did the film, that was in the time of the previous ministry of culture, which -- he was a peaceful man. He was -- he was an academic, you know.

But the man behind helping me to do this is Victor Shehekal Mehdi (ph), which -- he's a theater professor, and he's the director of -- the director of the cinema theater in Baghdad, which is also -- he's a -- he's a friend of mine. So he was behind producing this film -- (inaudible) -- the whole thing, especially, like, I insisted, there is no -- there is not going to be any kind of censorship; if you want to censor this script, I'm not your guy.

So they -- but he didn't get -- he didn't have much money to produce a film. So I told him, like, OK, if you provide me with half of the budget, I can collect the other half. And that's what I did.

But the problem is this is kind of like a one-man show. This is not a strategy to build a film industry or a film life in Iraq. We are talking about a country -- you know, like, Baghdad, the capital, is 8 million -- the population is 8 million. So that's -- I mean, this is a -- this is a very big, live city, right? I mean, there should be theaters and, you know, a film life there, which does not exist. This is what you are trying to do.

And because the capital is (covered ?) -- so there should be some help from the government, at least for the first (two ?) stages. And this strategy that we are looking for, we are trying to develop -- it's always been blocked by the Islamists over there because they don't believe in this. I mean, this money -- no, you don't go and renovate a theater, a film theater. You go and renovate a mosque.

And I can understand, because this is what he believes in. And the only difference between me and him -- that he's in power. So this is the dilemma, you know.

AMOS: I'd like to open the floor to questions. And if you'd raise your hand and stand up and -- if you have any questions for Oday about his film.

QUESTIONER: Your lead -- oh. Oh, sorry. Didn't know you had one.

Can everyone hear me, then?

AMOS: Name, please.

QUESTIONER: Yes. Can you hear?

AMOS: Yes. Name, please.

QUESTIONER: Oh. Martha Carroll (sp).

You said that you knew indirectly someone who came from what ostensibly was a quite happy family background, and you called him normal, and you said that with your film, a lot of the people said they felt they had to look in the mirror, or you felt that. And yet how do you account -- I mean, in your own mind, how do you account for the fact that people, as you say, who are like you and the people who saw the film -- why did he come out as an assassin, and the rest of you are not?

RASHEED: Basically, this is the question I was trying to answer in this film, to myself, first. And I know that art doesn't deliver answers. So -- but I tell you what I -- or do I believe? I think it's a -- it's terrifying when somebody with such a level of education like his -- you know, he studied engineering and he's almost graduated from school; his family is -- well, they're doing OK; and then all of a sudden he's an assassin.

This is terrifying more than when you go in the poor neighborhood in Baghdad and you see a lot of young people becoming killers because they are poor. They have nothing to do, you know, like with a few -- amount of money, they can -- and when you do it once, it's so easy to do it again and again.

And to tell you the truth, I don't have an answer for why this kind of people become an assassin. And they are a lot in our society, unfortunately.

And I think this guy in the film, he's -- he wanted to prove something to himself, and that was his choice. And all the enemies around him in society helped him to be heartless, maybe. I don't know. I don't have an answer.

AMOS: Susan.

QUESTIONER: Susan Woodward, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This may seem just a simple question, but I'd love to hear your answer. You're portraying violence in lots of ways in the film. There's the assassin, but he's killing politically, and then he's killing to help a friend go to Toronto, and he's killing to get revenge and then in a personal way.

But then there's all -- the witchcraft of the aunt is brutal. The father, Salih, his beating with -- I mean, there's so much violence. Are you trying to make a statement with that? And can you help us think through it?

RASHEED: Unfortunately, yes, there is a statement. As I told you, I hate statements in art, but I mean, I'm from Baghdad, you know -- (chuckling) -- so you have to, you know. (Soft laughter.)

I believe that, as I tell, like, education is a major problem in our society right now, and how we understand woman is also another kind of problem in our society, how we deal with woman, how -- the good thing -- I came from a family where the love was an essential thing in this house, and this has helped me a lot to -- you know, to appreciate woman in a different way than the society was. You know, even when you are a kid, you go to a mosque, the woman is a second (sic) citizen in this culture.

And I think in a lot of cultures -- I think even here sometimes there's a problem. But there it's a sort of violence against women, not just only by beating them, but also by not giving them the right to emotions, or, like -- or respect their emotion or understand them. Or you understand the woman that you tell yourself, I'm a man because I understand my woman, so she don't love me anymore, and I have to, you know, let her go. We don't have such a thing. So it's another face of violence I'm seeing in the society.

Also, the way that we are raising our children, the way that we are -- deal with our -- with our children -- I'm not talking -- not talking about Iraq as a, you know -- I'm talking about -- in general, I'm talking about Iraq in the last -- since -- actually, after that we invade Kuwait, that Iraq invade Kuwait, it's -- everything is changed -- start to change in the society with the embargo and then the 2003 invasion, and so -- and I think this -- and I was -- I was astonished by the way the society been changing, you know. And I think that's -- we have to, you know, face this kind of problem without being ashamed or embarrassed because this is our problem and we cannot go forward without solve it and talk about it.

So yes, the violence, for me, is not less violence than shooting somebody when you are -- when you don't -- when you don't understand the woman next to you. It's the way that I think.

QUESTIONER: My name is Joel Cohen. I work at Rockefeller University and Columbia University. I'd like to thank you for a magnificent film.

RASHEED: Thank you.

QUESTIONER: Iraq is one of the oldest origins of culture in the world -- this origin -- a center of innovation. And you've shown us that it continues to innovate and to lead. So thank you very much for a beautiful film.

RASHEED: Thank you.

QUESTIONER: One of its features is that it lingers long enough to let us actually see with our own eyes, and it's understated. I appreciate that by contrast with most of the films that hit you across the head.

And that leads to my question to you: Your remark about the present political leaders of Iraq having a different vision was also very understated. Would you be willing to say more about what you foresee, about what you see as the opposing forces? And just spell out a little bit of that remark, please.

RASHEED: Well, thank you for your words, and thank you for the way that you see the film.

I don't think they have any kind of vision, not definitely, because vision, that means you have something and you develop it and you have -- they have well-structured rules -- I don't know how long -- or the age of those rules. And they work according to these rules. So to have a vision, that's mean you have the desire of changing and -- or to develop something. They don't -- they don't want to do that, you know. They have their concept of -- which has been written, like, for a long time. And they just change the look. They look more modern, but you know, they are not.

And it's painful, like, when you see such a country, you know, live through all this, and then you have this moment of crazy invasion, and then with all these sources in this country, you know, human sources, nature sources, the historical sources you mentioned -- that's -- those people are controlling everything. And it's -- yeah, I'm speechless about this. It's embarrassing.

I think Iraq is -- you know, there's this kind of people in Iraq that's -- they are not less than any -- like, genius, where they're genius in politics and economic and then -- and how they -- but they don't have a chance right now because they are secular, as simple as that -- you know, because they don't believe in all this. They believe in another kind of government. And unfortunately, all this happened under the tent of democracy.

QUESTIONER: Thanks.

RASHEED: Thank you.

AMOS: I just want to -- and I will get to you. Do you feel a responsibility to stay, to reflect what this film reflects?

RASHEED: In Baghdad, you mean?

AMOS: Yeah.

RASHEED: Yeah, definitely. And this is basically -- you know, like, what I am saying here doesn't mean this country is flat. There's a lot going on now in the country, like culture-wise, even -- you know, even politically. Politically there's a new generation who want to -- me, as a filmmaker, I feel like the film is a very essential thing to present yourself first and then your culture, so I co-founded the Iraqi Independent Film Center, which is -- basically it's taking care of the new generation of filmmakers over there. And also I -- also my mom's there, so -- (laughter) -- I cannot leave.

AMOS: Wait for the microphone.

QUESTIONER: I'm Suzanne (sp) Arkin. I'm a little confused by what you were saying, but I'm thinking of the point in the film when the boss has come and is saying to the assassin, listen, there are certain ways that we go about doing things; there's a certain plan; we have an organization. Do you still believe in chaos?

RASHEED: Me?

QUESTIONER: No.

RASHEED: Oh.

QUESTIONER: The assassin. He says to the -- at least I think that's what he said to the assassin, do you still believe in chaos. And you can't go about killing people like that, you have to do it according to a certain procedure -- which, of course, makes no sense at all when you stop to think about it, because somebody who's dead is dead.

RASHEED: Yeah.

QUESTIONER: But you had to hit -- you had this sort of -- the keeping of control. So I wondered whether this was the person on the street they don't want running around with the guns, versus the government, which is running around with the guns too, but they do it in a different way. So I didn't know whether you had divided the violence.

RASHEED: I don't get your question; I'm sorry. I think --

QUESTIONER: Where you have the two people standing --

RASHEED: I know, I know.

QUESTIONER: -- (inaudible) -- what you meant.

RASHEED: What's the question?

QUESTIONER: Did you -- is that what you meant?

RASHEED: That there is two kinds --

QUESTIONER: There are two kinds -- when they stood there separately.

RASHEED: You know, people -- (inaudible). They know there was like two kinds of killing, you know: a very well organized killing, like what happened with my friend Harry (ph), who's (being acted in the film ?), the -- Ziyad, the photographer, he's been assassined four months ago, just one shot in the head in his kitchen. And this thing is very well organized.

QUESTIONER: Was there a reason?

RASHEED: Yeah, because he got a radio show and he was, like -- explained -- a weekly radio show, a very powerful radio show, and so they didn't like what he was saying, so, whoever, he killed him. But the way that he's been assassined, it was a very, very mafiosi kind of -- well organized.

And you have another kind of killing, which is -- this has stopped now, but that was, like, (really functioning ?) in 2006, '7, '8, when there were, like, a bunch of people with a machine gun and go and shoot people around.

QUESTIONER: That's what I meant, that you separated the two of them.

RASHEED: Yeah, but in this scene, the killer, which he got no name in the film because I don't know, I think --

QUESTIONER: (Off mic.)

RASHEED: Yeah, I don't know his name. He was facing another kind of problem, I think. He was sick of himself, also, being a killer. And then he decided to go to the extreme. I think so. I'm not sure.

AMOS: I'd like to thank everybody for coming tonight. It was a brilliant film. Thanks for your questions. (Applause.) And thank you, Oday.

RASHEED: Thank you.

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