Belgium / Netherlands / Iraq
Sahim Omar Kalifa • Director of Baghdad Messi
"This story is a metaphor for the way the Iraqi dream has been annihilated"
- We met with the Belgian-Kurdish director who chose to reinvent his hit, short film and turn it into a feature film
In 2014, Baghdad Messi - a short film directed by Sahim Omar Kalifa, a Kurdish filmmaker exiled in Belgium since 2001 who trained at Sint-Lukas - was selected for the Oscars. Delivering a message of hope close to the filmmaker’s heart, the film subsequently travelled all over the world. After a first feature film set in Belgium (Zagros [+see also:
interview: Sahim Omar Kalifa
film profile]), the director decided to return to Iraq with a view to developing his short film and potentially opening it up to even wider audiences by turning it into a feature film, Baghdad Messi [+see also:
interview: Sahim Omar Kalifa
film profile], which was recently unveiled at the Ostend Film Festival. We spoke with Sahim Omar Kalifa about this unique experience.
Cineuropa: How did this story take shape, having started life as a short film?
Sahim Omar Kalifa: I always write stories which are very close to my heart, to a certain extent anyway. When it comes to Baghdad Messi, there’s a bit of myself in it, but the story has morphed enough that I can say it’s not mine. Obviously, I’ve never lost a leg, but I have known war in Iraq, and, above all, I was definitely a football fan, I played it every day, I followed all the matches.
In 2001, I came to Belgium with my family. We were given refugee status, but I wasn’t really happy, and I asked myself why. And then I understood that football had changed my life at the time, that it had helped me to conserve a certain amount of optimism, and that I needed to reconnect with it. That’s why I wanted to make a film about it.
Clearly, in films, it’s not what’s said that’s important, it’s how we say it. So I needed to turn my passion for football into something interesting on a narrative level. The film speaks about Hamoudi escaping reality thanks to his passion, no matter how harsh the reality - in Hamoudi’s case, war, the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shiites, his disability, his father’s situation. His father understands all that and does everything he can to help Hamoudi hold onto his happiness through football.
Why make the transition from short film to feature film?
The short won a variety of awards, it was pre-selected for the Oscars, and it touched millions of people. We told ourselves that, with a feature film, we’d be able to touch even more people, and that the story could be developed to enable us to talk more about Iraq. The short film "just" tells the story of a little boy in his tiny village. For the present film, we had to add additional layers of complexity. The story of his parents, for example, an educated Baghdadi couple who had known one of the most beautiful towns in the Middle East before the war. The father plays an important role: he works for an American security firm, which results in him hijacking his son’s dream. It was also important for us to create an incredibly strong and loving mother figure who would be a far cry from the traditional image of local women as very conservative; she fights for her family. The father and mother have two very different ways of showing their love for their son and supporting him.
In Hamoudi’s eyes, it’s a double loss: that of his leg and, with it, his dream of playing football, and that of his town and environment too. Following the shooting which he falls victim to and which his father is involved in, very much against his will, they move to a tiny village which seems welcoming, but they soon realise they’re not going to be accepted within the community. The various religious wars have made things very difficult. Even within families.
So you’re taking a more political approach?
This is a very symbolic story for us. When Hamoudi loses his leg and his dreams of playing football evaporate after being caught in the crossfire of a gunfight between American mercenaries and Iraqi rebels, it’s a metaphor for the way the Iraqi dream has been annihilated by the coalition troops, the way the Americans have destroyed the country. I’m of Kurdish origin. I’m clearly very happy that the Americans helped to liberate Kurdistan. But the price paid is clear to see. Mosul, like Bagdad, was one of the most beautiful towns in the region, in the world, even, before the conflict. I can remember that, in the ‘80s, going to Mosul was like going to Europe in my mind! Nowadays it’s barely there. What Hamoudi’s father experiences is the same as what lots of other people have experienced: Iraqis who’ve worked for the Americans, who’ve been abandoned, and who are then seen as traitors by the local people.
(Translated from French)
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