Once a sign of Iraq’s cultural revival after decades of conflict, the Baghdad International Film Festival ended on a sour note Sunday with complaints of poor organization and a lack of funds.
Several prominent directors were absent, there was a palpable lack of resources, and obvious disinterest from the government as the five-day festival drew to a close on Sunday night.
The banner advertising the festival, draped in front of the Ishtar Sheraton hotel in central Baghdad, was illegible. In the conference room where the awards ceremony was held, a platform hastily-covered by a white sheet rose just centimetres (inches) above the ground.
Speeches could not be heard above conversations in the audience, and translators mangled what was said. When awards were due to be handed out, presenters pulled them out of supermarket plastic bags, in full view of the audience.
Among the award winners were French-Moroccan director Uda Benyamina and her film “On the road to paradise”, and French director Chloe Mazlo and her film “Deyrouth”, a play on the French spelling of Beirut and the French word for failure.
Several of the award-winning directors chose not to attend the ceremony, unlike in previous years.
The Baghdad International Film Festival, first held in 2005, this year accepted around 100 films, including shorts, features and documentaries.
It marked the first time the number of submissions has fallen from the previous festival -- a year ago, more than 150 films were exhibited, submitted from 32 countries, many of them showcased at the National Theatre in Baghdad.
Journalist Mohammed Ismail said the event “lacked the basic conditions to make it look like a real film festival.”
Cinema critic Kadhim Murshid added that it was “illogical to organize a film festival in a country whose capital does not have a single functioning cinema,” alluding to the lack of movie theatres in Baghdad.
The Iraqi film industry dates back to the 1940s and was at its most popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when going to the cinema was a weekly family event.
However, the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait and the economic sanctions that followed saw cinemas go into decline, a situation worsened by the rampant violence that came after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Now, cinemas across Iraq are used as warehouses and widely derided by locals as dens showing pornographic movies and places for gay men to meet, a reputation the industry has struggled to shed in a country where pornography and homosexuality are taboo.
“The problem lies in the fact that we have very little money,” complained Ammar al-Radi, the festival's technical director, who noted that the entire budget for the event was just $50,000.
Radi insisted, however, that despite the criticism, the festival would return in 2013.