Filming in Iraq
Mark’s new book is about the ups and downs of making his history of cinema, The Story of Film, and The First Movie. Here are extracts from the two chapters about being in Iraqi Kurdistan.
A busy Iraqi road, as seen from the wheel of a car.
Chapter 5
Iraq 2008. Talk about the Gas Pedal.

What I knew when I started writing this book is that I didn’t know where it would go. If I’d made a list of all the places I didn’t know I’d go, near the top would be Iraq, during its war. And so that’s where I’d heading as I write. The foot is on the gas pedal once again.

I’m on a plane flying to Istanbul with Gill Parry, a film producer I’ve known for yonks and with whom I have cooked up an idea. We’ve both travelled in Kurdistan – she in Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan, me in the Iranian and Turkish bits. We both felt buzzed by the vitality of the kurds, the funny way they slalom around things they’re not allowed to say, their gleaming black eyes, their strong brows, their angry songs, their unavoidable daily humiliations.

So we wanted to make some kind of film with them, to point a camera at their life force. I’ve become interested in kids’ imaginations and have always loved the Sheherezade stories in 1001 Nights, so suggested going to “Arabia” and making what I called “the first magic realist documentary” – though doubtless there have been loads – about kids who can fly or are invisible, about dogs that talk, about trees that sing. As such, as well as the usual film equipment you need for such a doc, Gill and I have brought a bag full of toys, including a wind-up turtle and a wide-eyed alien that keeps making bleeping noises because I don’t know how to turn it off. Not very CNN. Not very embedded hard news.

Given the fact that we are trying to combine magic, fun, dreams, war, fantasy and childhood, and the fact that I am filming myself without a DP, and Gill is sound recording, we are nervous – or at least I am. There’s a regality about Gill – she doesn’t speed up or slow down, which looks from the outside like unflappability. I stare out the airplane window. I read Sheherezade. Her stories get me thinking. What if I try to film in Iraq using the technique that the surrealists called “exquisite corps”? What if one child starts a story – about chickens, the moon, whatever – then another continues it, then a third and fourth do so too, in relay fashion? Would that work? Would it allow us to see a child as she or he thinks up the next twist in the tale. I thought so. I was excited. I scribbled on the plane (again).

Chapter 5 (continued)

We arrive at Istanbul, late. I go to a hamam at 11pm. It’s $60. I hover. Could it be mingin’? Hairs in the showers, seedy dudes mooching in corners, that type of thing? Especially at this time of night? How can I tell? I can’t, but take the plunge. And am glad I do. Cemerbilats Hamam, it turns out, was built by Sinan, no less, in 1584. The changing area is all wooded slats, a bit Japanese. The towels are 70s colours and hard – no fabric softener, just as I like them. I get soap and a bracelet for my key. I go into the baths. The room is a dimly lit, misty Ottoman octahedron, with stars cut in the roof and niches, washing stalls and rooms off. I lie on the huge central heated stone. The heat is pressing on my chest. I breath in fast, but out slowly, letting the tropical air find its way out of my body. The sound of this, the bellows of my life, is good. I am in a Sheherezade story. Do I wake or sleep? I float a millimetre above the hot stone. I am in a middle-ages reverie, sheesha fuelled and perfumed by roses…

WOLLOP! A Robbie Coltrane looky-likey hits me like a ten-ton truck. I stare at him, this human sledgehammer, wide eyed. What did I do wrong?! His jaunty smile tells me that I did precisely nothing wrong. His near fatal assault was a friendly nudge to tell me that it was my turn to be washed. I was unnerved. The last time I had been confronted by the Side Wall of a House offering to wash me was in the famous Russian baths in lower east side Manhattan, with producer John. The fame of these baths is, in my opinion, undeserved. Or maybe they are famous in ways in which I am not versed. Perhaps the fact that I had envisaged bespectacled intellectuals murmuring Akhmatova stanzas amidst beautiful tile work set that afternoon up to fail, but as someone who drops his drawers at the slightest promise of social nudity, and who has been known to operate with unappealing cunning in order to evince such promise, I not only donned the droopy brown shorts proffered by the Russian bath brigade, but hoiked them up near my nipples. There is a mankyness and skankyness about those Russian baths that seems to have eluded the guide book writers. I know that in eastern Europe, such baths were not only the domain of the posh and the grand. Great. I head for working class places like a heat seeking missile. But this place is lit like A Short film About Killing. Maybe my judgement is to-pot on this, because I had never until then, and have never since, until tonight in this hamam, been in a place where a wash is something that is done to you. And it wasn’t just prosaically, done. In the Russian baths in Manhattan, a naked guy comes up to the person he is about to wash with a bunch of oak twigs, somehow makes a lather out of them and, then, savages his intended as a dog might savage a rabbit, with feral frenzy, a blur of arms, twigs and suds.

With these images in mind, I was bound to be unnerved by Sledgehammer towering over me. But then he did something you’d see in a fairy tale. He held an inflated bag, like a huge balloon, above my head, and burst it. From it descended a cloud of foam that smelled like the Lux powdered soap that my mum used to do her hand washing with. That cloud covered me. I breathed in the smell. I was eight again. Sledgehammer went to work.

Chapter 5 (continued)

Unlike in Manhattan, I was shortless, but had a sarongy thing that he replaced expertly as he’s set about one limb after another. Who’d have known that a bloke with a bunch of banana hands could wash your ears so perfectly? His outstanding ear work led me to trust him elsewhere, and I was right to do so. His neck work was predictably scorched earthy – it didn’t seem to occur to him that I might have any need for it, my neck, after he was finished with it – but was less bent on destruction than the neck massage I once had on a beach in Mumbai, which made the jaws of the onlookers drop open, but even it, motivated as it appeared to be by some old testament fury, was great. If, Sledgehammer, you are reading this, however, I would point out a timing issue. When your washee opens his mouth wide to exclaim about the pain of a particularly torquing neck twist is not the moment to chuck a full bucket of water right in his face to wash away the soap suds. There’s a drowning issue here. You showed a disregard for socketry, too, in the way you twisted my arm up and behind my head and into other configurations that I was in too much pain to notice.

As I change, two guys from London recognise me. We chat. They go to hamams regularly, “because our bodies are worth it.”

My body has seen nothing like it. I walk back to the hotel, floating with cleanness, drifting like the smell of Lux and shampoo. Hundreds of birds fly above, and are lit by, the sodium lights of the vast Blue Mosque that always looks like a power station to me, or a Thunderbirds bunker. The birds are slow fireworks.

Producer Gill and I take a night taxi to the airport. Our flight is delayed until 9am – ten hours. We meet a posh British man dressed in linen. He smells of cognac and talks about the micropolitics of the Kurdish tribes. I know I should understand what he is saying, but I tune out. He’s like someone in a Graham Greene story, a fading former ambassador, a guy who was once something big in a world that no longer needs him. He goes back to that world anyway, his surfeit of knowledge driving him to drink and making him talk too much. He ends up in security, working with the sort of guys who used to guard him. If everything was right with the world, he’d be too far up the pecking order to have to spend time with blow ins like Gill and me. His privilege would insulate him from our ignorance. Instead, as the hours creep by, as night becomes dawn, as we drink buckets of coffee, he puts up with our relative disinterest because it is a little more than the complete disinterest he meets in the Slug and Lettuce in the Kent village where he lives.

Six, seven, eight o’clock come and go, at glacial speed, and my eyes are burning. We get onto the flight to Erbil. It’s mostly Arab people, some very rich, some with those multicoloured plastic bags you get in North Africa and the Middle East, full of food and electronics, lashed together.

I fall down into the well of sleep, then surface to see desert below us, then I go down into the well again.

Chapter 5 (continued)

We clear customs at Erbil airport, then push our trolleys out into the oven heat glare, the flat world of runways, huts and, beyond, deserts. People stand in line in the long thin shadows thrown by flagpoles. Shade is like money here. Inexplicably, Graham Greene man phones ahead to Gharib our fixer translator, arranging where we might meet him. He does not consult us. Producer Gill finds this very irritating.

We meet Gharib, who I take to at once, and Sami, our boy racer spivvy driver who has the makings of a DA hairdo. They take us to our hotel. Sami’s car blasts warm air con. It’s like standing behind the engines of our plane.

It’s – what – noon now? We have breakfast of tinned spaghetti and cardamon coffee. Barbara Streisand sings “Woman in Love.” I go to my room. It’s scubby. The sink’s broken. 70s furniture. The thick navy curtains are pulled closed to mask the blinding scorching heat. I thought that I’d be able to think of nothing but tiredness but in fact the heat is more compelling. It roars at us, it snarls in our faces. A chink in the curtains lets in a beam of sunlight, searing like a laser. I sleep…

Minutes or hours or days later, I put on a suit and white shirt, and factor 50 suncream, and meet the others in the lobby. We drive to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and its culture and film ministries. Our two security guys, Farhad and Abdullah, follow in their car. They are a condition of us getting insurance. Their walkie talkies beep constantly. They offer us bullet-proof vests.

We get to the ministries. Though they are KRG, they are guarded by Arab soldiers whom we greet with Asalaam Alekum rather than the Kurdish Slaow. We meet the Culture Minister. Hand shakes, greetings, tea. We sit politely, straight backed, on sofas like my mum had in the early 80s. The minister is nice to us. He approves our mission and gives us our open sesame filming permits on government headed paper. We do five such meetings. My bright, friendly face masks exhaustion. I want to curl up on the sofas and sleep. Gill is better at these formalities. I get irritated. I want to start filming, or eat or drink wine, but we go to meet yet more officials. The favourite films of the minister of culture’s son are Rush Hour 1 and 2. I try to turn this into a conversation, but my brain is dead. The film minister’s ringtone is Lionel Ritchie’s Hello, Is it Me You’re Looking For? It rings again and again. I’m next door to hell. Somehow the minister is answering his phone, hand writing permission letters and – I kid you not – auditioning on camera for a Danish film producer, all at once.

Our filming starts. Days pass. The temperature rises to the high 30s and low 40s. The heat feels as if it is between me and the world around me. I’m locked in. All I can smell is factor 50. We drive in Sami’s wind tunnel, then I jump out, climb a ridge, set up the camera, line up a shot, film a landscape that looks koranic or Talmudic, then jump back in the car. I’m wearing white – including a white woolly hat – but am cooking.

Chapter 5 (continued)

There are kids everywhere, especially at dusk. They are in such numbers and play so energetically on their bikes, some clutching bottles of water that have been frozen during the day and are now thawing in the evening heat, that they kick up clouds of sand. The last rays of the low sun strike that sand like a projector beam. It’s like Turner painted these scene of everyday play. The kids are fleeting, flitting lines of blue or cerise chalk. But the next day, these Koranic, watercloured scenes have been replaced with bucolic ones. We are in a verdant valley. Kids frolic in rivers edged by trees. I roll up my white trousers and wade in too. I help them to dam the river with branches, rocks and reeds. We play together and then I get my camera out and film our game. I love the directness of this, I love its fun, I love how much the kids have accepted me, and the fact that I don’t have to ask a DP to film certain shots. I have no idea how they will come out.

We drive more – hours, days, other landscapes, places called Dream Parks. I eat kebabs and grilled tomatoes everywhere. Gill, who’s a vegetarian. has difficulty finding good, meatless grub. She’s a bit of a diva with waiters – precise and somewhat demanding – and as I am pitifully the opposite, I look away. We go to the cultural city of Suliemania, then to Dohuk, which looks like Positano – pink and pistachio coloured houses banked up against the side of a hill. Many of the buildings in its surrounding villages are new. The old ones were destroyed by Saddam.

Ah, Saddam. His name is like a bell that tolls through Goptapa, a village on a hill where we spend a night. We sleep in a huge, filthy house on that hill. Gharib cooks. Farhad and Abdullah play with their guns. Gill and I get drunk, to block out the discomfort, or to get on the same wavelength as the strangeness, or to high five the fact that Goptapa is beautiful and tragic, or to feel as much as we should be feeling. It’s boiling hot. The guys go off hunting. I feel that I’m in a Hemingway story.

Next day we see peacocks in Guptapa. We film with a local man, Mustafa, who, hunkering in an olive grove, describes the days of the Ba’athist air strikes in the village. 130 of its 700 inhabitants died. Mustafa was badly burnt. A hill in the village is the cemetery. It’s a mini Thiepval, except that the graves are not of combatants. And they are in line: A father, then his wife, then their kids.

We film with a little boy in Goptapa, in his family’s yard, surrounded by chickens. The boy has glorious black eyes. He says that if he had any wish in the world, it would be to have two pigeons. Why? So that he could fly slowly over the village and around the world. We are wrapped in Kurdish heat, fears and fantasies. Some of it is so dispiriting. I film a gaggle of kids in one of the Positano villages outside Dohuk. I get one of the boys to walk backwards, bursting red balloons. When we reverse the footage, he will walk forwards, and the balloons will snap into existence. I love the simple Cocteau magic of such things, but then I ask the gang what they all dream of. One boy says quietly, in an accent that Gharib doesn’t quite understand, that he’d like to be invisible, that “they can’t hurt me or kill my family”.