by Kalya Ramu
by Vik Hovanisian
“Iraq has a lot of stories that we never shared with the rest of the world, nor told to ourselves.”
In his book Becoming Human, Jean Vanier stated:
“To be human is not to be crushed by reality, or to be angry about it or to try to hammer it into what we think it is or should be, but to commit ourselves as individuals to an evolution that will be for the good of all.”
Maytham Jbara does just that, exploring reality and its possibilities, its space for change towards the hopeful and the creative. As an Iraqi-Canadian filmmaker, producer and cinematographer, he focuses his work on humanitarian issues, from catastrophes to the struggle for basic rights and dignity. Born, raised, and trained in Baghdad, Maytham Jbara moved to Toronto in 2018, fleeing threats from radical groups in his home country due to his activism in the arts and his commitment to freedom and human rights.
His works tell the stories of everyday people, citizens of a country being destroyed, and their lives as they evolve through extreme situations and the fight for survival. His work as a cinematographer, art director, and production director has been selected for, and awarded, in renowned international film festivals including the Busan International Film Festival (for the film Haifa Street in 2019), the Berlin International Film Festival (for Mosul 980 in 2019), TIFF (for The Journey in 2019), and others. His new short film, Qadr, for which he was both writer and director, has just been selected for the distinguished L.A. Short Film Festival, opening a path to potential nominations by the Academy and BAFTA.
Tell us about Qadr and what its nomination means to your artistic career.
Once, back home, I heard about a woman who detonated a suicide bomb at the checkpoint in Mosul [second largest city, located in northern Iraq, which was taken over by ISIS in 2014] with her little child. I couldn’t help but wonder, trying to find an answer for myself: why would she do that? What could have been the reason for a mother to do such a horrific thing? Was it truly because of her beliefs? I was looking for an answer, to try to understand what happened to her as a human being, what led her to make such a choice.
I couldn’t see her only as a terrorist, a member of ISIS, etc. There was a refusal within me to judge her in any way. Instead, I wanted to go deep, to immerse myself within my own humanity, to find an answer—a real one, a human one—one which was not tainted by the media. After all, this happened in my home country, the country where I grew up, the country I was supposed to know well…
When ISIS took over Mosul, they turned men in the city into their fighters or killed them if they refused. They abducted young unmarried girls, Yazidi women [ethnoreligious minority group indigenous to the Kurdish region], sending them to be sold in their slave markets. The rest of the women—such as married Sunni Muslim women—were brainwashed by institutions such as Al-Hisbas, indoctrinating them into the “new” roles and responsibilities that would serve ISIS’s interests. There, if you disobeyed the orders, you would be punished, tortured and more, until you complied.
Iqbal, the lead character in the film, personifies one of these women. She is a religious woman, following and trusting of her husband as is “traditionally” expected in Iraqi society. Qadr, her six-year-old daughter, is knocking on her mother’s closed bedroom door, trying to open it and calling to her mother with no response under the endless sounds of gunfire and explosions. They are both under the watch of an ISIS sniper’s scope. While Iqbal is silently reading the Quran in her closed bedroom, praying for a solution and expecting news from her husband, a short phone call with him reveals that he has chosen his ISIS mission above his family, suddenly and irrevocably determining their end.
Iqbal, with a promise from ISIS that her child would be kept safe, is told that her only choice is to go through with the murderous mission at the checkpoint. In the end, she takes her daughter with her, realizing that her whole life has been nothing but a lie.
The film was the result of my search for answers, of my own quest. It puts into images the line of questioning I had in my mind for so long. I want the audience to put themselves in Iqbal’s position, an extreme position: what do you do when you have no choice left?
The L.A. Short Film Festival nomination means a lot both to me as an artist and to the work done with an incredible and committed team. This film has been my attempt—after leaving my country reluctantly and under extreme pressure—to hope to turn the page by creating a new life, without death and murder, where living in peace is possible and where love can govern above all.
I am also happy and proud, because this film has been an opportunity to build a bridge between my home and host countries. Qadr is an Iraqi-Canadian co-production, which is an achievement in itself as there is no bilateral agreement between the two countries when it comes to the film industry.
With this nomination, and I hope with more good news to come, I feel inspired and want to empower and help other filmmakers and artists, in Iraq and in the Middle East in general, to keep creating art and to keep making films about their lives, which are so valuable and worth being put into images. The world needs to see, to know and maybe to understand that not every part of this planet has the chance to live a peaceful life.
As a producer and a director working in Canada, why is it important to continue making films about Iraq?
Iraq has a lot of stories that we never shared with the rest of the world, nor told to ourselves. There is still a lot for us to acknowledge and understand about what has happened to us as a society in the past and what is happening today. We have a lot to share with the world, and these stories are not only about wars.
I am from Iraq, I lived there, having the same experiences people went through or are still going through. And then I had the opportunity to see something else, to realize and accept that life can be better. As a filmmaker, as an artist, I cannot simply stand aside. As a global society, we are facing a lot of issues—some really terrible ones—that we are still trying to overcome. By making films, I think, we have a double impact. For example, when we make films in Iraq, about life in Iraq, we support filmmakers and teams there, helping them to find opportunities to learn and connect more, to create and work together, to share experiences. At the same time, we are committed to making the society more aware, to uplifting people in their different aspects and points of view.
That’s why I’m dedicating myself to this double mission, while having the chance to live in Canada. To support creation and artists in Iraq as they make their voices heard, and then to make their work visible to an international audience. I truly think that is what art is. It’s through art and creation that we will awaken and open minds, touch hearts everywhere, with no borders at all.
What motivates you in the struggle against human rights violations?
I was one of them, one of those who struggled and tried to find a better way. And I couldn’t find it. I failed. It made me become negative, nihilistic. How else could it feel when you see and hear your family and your people struggling for life, when you watch them being killed in front of your eyes? When nothing can be done to help them? As an artist, I chose to take on the responsibility of showing everyday human suffering, in order to awaken and find solutions through art. I believe that’s the way to find peace for the mind and love for ourselves. That’s what worked for me and that’s how I can and want to contribute.
You are working on a new project about the unhoused in Canada. What’s the motivation there?
I’ve lived in Canada now for three years. It is a beautiful country with a lot of possibilities. And issues, as well. I have seen the people living on the streets and started wondering about what happened to them, about why they became homeless. Yes, because one is not born homeless. One becomes homeless, despite international human rights laws recognizing everyone’s right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate housing. My question was, “What are their stories?” I realized people treat them in different ways here. Mostly with pity and compassion. But some don’t care, or judge them for having chosen this path deliberately, for being drug addicts, for example. I know that behind each one of the homeless people we see, there is a story, a struggle and a potential for a better life. And for us, as members of society, there is the opportunity to learn as humans by helping them to achieve this potential, by finding a better life in dignity. People living in the streets is our problem, a problem for each one of us. Each one of us has the responsibility to act.
With my weapons and tools—my pen and camera—I want to bring people’s attention to the ignored, showing them in a different light, in a different way, than what we see in our everyday lives. I’ve had this project in mind since my very beginning in Canada. It follows me everywhere I go… I have a plan to join them, to go and live with them for a while, to maybe become one of them. Because I want to hear their stories and find the reasons and answers I’m looking for. Being a human among humans. To just tell stories.