Iraqis Get a Taste of Hollywood ; A Filmmakers' Exchange Offers a Glimpse at Life in America's Movie Capital

By Anderson, John | International Herald Tribune, July 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

Iraqis Get a Taste of Hollywood ; A Filmmakers' Exchange Offers a Glimpse at Life in America's Movie Capital


Anderson, John, International Herald Tribune


An exchange program is giving Iraqi filmmakers a taste of Americana and an insight into how the people of Los Angeles live and work.

In most ways, it was a typical Sunday evening house party in the Venice neighborhood here. A pool. A band. A mix of Hollywood types. A couple of vegetarian options. And one neighbor complaining about the noise.

"I'm distraught!" cried the neighbor, a woman who had materialized at the home's back door. "I'm exhausted. I have to work. You have to stop!" The host assured her the music would last only a little while and sent her on her way. The band kicked off another number. It was 6:50 p.m.

The guests were urged to get something to eat. "I don't know," said Yasir Kareem, 27, waving his hands theatrically in the air. "The distraught woman might be back." The message seemed pretty clear: Back home in Baghdad, noisy parties aren't something people tend to complain about.

But here in Los Angeles, almost everything was a surprise for Mr. Kareem and his four fellow travelers, aspiring filmmakers from Iraq in town for a week of education and revelations, including the sort available on the Venice Beach boardwalk.

"They haven't seen people from different countries, or people dancing on the beach," said Atia al-Daradji, 47. "Or the beach. Or half-naked women." With his brother, the director Mohamed al- Daradji ("Son of Babylon"), Mr. Daradji founded the Iraqi Independent Film Center in Baghdad, which works with would-be filmmakers and selected the group for the American trip. "They're young," he said, smiling. "They will definitely come away with a different view of the world. They're already asking, 'Why don't we have this in Iraq?"'

What they definitely don't have at home is a film industry, something being addressed, at least to a degree, by the nonprofit International Film Exchange. The exchange brought the students over from Baghdad where, several weeks before, the filmmaker Bill Megalos of Los Angeles had conducted a 10-day workshop on storytelling and editing. The exchange is devoted primarily to cultural give and take and international understanding. But in the case of the Iraqis, it may help create a base of knowledgeable filmmakers, a "crew" as the young men themselves called it. Since the economic sanctions imposed after the first Gulf War, making films in Iraq has become all but impossible.

"It was my family business," said the bearish Salam S. Mazeel, 35, whose mother was a sound designer, and who wants to be a cinematographer like his father. "But in the '90s, everything stopped. We go to the hard times. No money, no hope."

After his father died, his mother quit the business to raise her children; there was no cinema anyway. "That's how it was," Mr. Mazeel said. "Now, maybe something is different and we come to America and there are a few things in our minds. Like how to apply American rules to Iraqi movies."

Instruction on the rules arrived in various ways. On the leafy campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, Mr. Mazeel and his colleagues -- including a redheaded 21-year-old, Omid Khald, who had responded to the Pacific by jumping into it -- were hearing from people like the former Universal Pictures chairman David Linde and the screenwriter Linda Voorhees, who talked about financing and story structure.

During a trip to the Westwood neighborhood and its old-style movie palaces, the Iraqis got to see what some of them had never seen: a film in a theater ("Man of Steel," about which they were lukewarm). The Sunday party at Mr. Megalos's home had been attended by several film veterans, including the director Jeremy Kagan and the Oscar-winning screenwriter Barry Morrow ("Rain Man"), who talked to the young men about their expectations, their scripts and the films they plan to make this summer in Iraq. (Bringing over female students was a cultural impossibility; young Iraqi women cannot travel with unrelated men.)

"They're so hungry," Mr. …

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