A budding Iraqi filmmaker yells “Action!” as an actress climbs over rubble in the old town of Mosul, proud pupil of a young film school in the former jihadist bastion.
Mosul still bears the scars of the brutal rule of the Islamic State, which overran the northern Iraqi city in 2014 and enforced its ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic law.
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They destroyed everything from centuries-old churches to musical instruments before being defeated in a devastating battle in 2017.
In a collaboration between the Mosul Fine Arts Academy, a Belgian theater company and the UN cultural agency UNESCO, 19 students are now given the chance to make their first short films.
“We live in Mosul, we know everything that has happened,” said 20-year-old theater student Mohammed Fawaz. “We want to show all of this to the world through the cinema.”
During a four-month course, students get everything from writing and filming to acting and editing, says Milo Rau, artistic director of the Belgian NTGent theater group behind the initiative.
With cameras and microphones in hand, the students roam the streets of Mosul to tell stories from their wounded city. An actress disguised as a bride searches for her husband only to find that he stepped on a land mine.
Children and other residents crowd around curiously while a neighbor refuses to turn off a loud generator.
âWe’re losing the light,â one of the teachers reminds the students as the December sun goes down.
Studying at the Academy of Fine Arts after the IS defeat was a bit like the “transition from the Stone Age to the modern age,” said the student Fawaz.
A fan of blockbuster films like Marvel and “Fast and Furious,” Fawaz spent several of his teenage years at home with no television or school among the extremists, learning English through books and thanks to a neighbor.
He and some classmates have already decided to “make films about Mosul and its war,” said Fawaz.
After a month-long intensive session in October, students tried out different roles as they banded together to make their films, said Belgian lecturer, cameraman and filmmaker Daniel Demoustier.
All devices brought with them from abroad, such as lenses and sound equipment, are retained, with the aim that the students “pick them up again and make their own films”.
Even if only three or four do it, “it will be a great success,” he said.
Tamara Jamal, 19, said the course was her “first experience” with cinema.
Her short film tells the story of a young girl whose father beats her mother while others have dealt with topics such as early marriage.
“Most students prefer to talk about stories in which children play the main role,” says Susana AbdulMajid, an Iraqi-German actress and teacher whose family is originally from Mosul.
The young people in the city “have gone through many difficult and terrible things … there is a kind of longing for childhood and also for a time of innocence,” she said.
The nine to five-minute works by the students will be shown in Mosul in February before they are presented at European festivals, said Rau.
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His production of “Orestes in Mosul” – an adaptation of the ancient Greek tragedy of Aeschylus – was produced in 2018-2019 with the participation of local students.
The goal now is to secure funding to keep the cinema department running, he said.
The next step will be “to have a small Mosul film festival … continue what we started”.