Director: Oday Rasheed
Underexposure was the first feature film made in Iraq after the start of the Iraq War in 2003, and was also therefore the first Iraqi film in fifteen years not to be censored by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party. This film is the product of a small, independent cast and crew led by Oday Rasheed, working in the chaotic aftermath of a dictatorship’s downfall. It therefore stands in contrast to those in my previous entries Lion of the Desert (Libya) and Pulgasari (North Korea) which were filmed in dictatorships at their height and thus forced to carry the propaganda of their respective governments.
Underexposure is a testament to the resourcefulness and ingenuity of its creators, whose circumstances forced them to constantly improvise and compromise. Film labs had been banned under Hussein due to fears about the production of subversive material, and because the processing chemicals might have been used to make weapons instead of films. Hence, Underexposure was shot on decades-expired Kodak film which had been looted from the archives of Saddam Hussein, and then bought on the black market by the filmmakers. The degraded film stock is what gives Underexposure its title and its distinctive look and texture: a burnt umber tint covers the whole frame, with areas of very dark shadow.
The plot involves a young Iraqi director named Hassan, who along with a small crew is trying to make a documentary on the streets of Baghdad which will faithfully capture the physical, ideological, and sociocultural destruction that has been wrought upon the city. Hassan attempts to interview a series of locals about the war, all of whom have been deeply affected in different ways. Some are eager to share their stories, while others are confrontational and demand the cameras be turned off.
Obviously, Hassan and the other main characters have many similarities to Oday Rasheed and the actual crew making Underexposure. The film-within-a-film structure calls conscious attention to the process of film-making itself, and the artificiality it demands. Underexposure is a highly reflexive rumination on the nature of storytelling and cinema, and deliberately blurs the line between documentary and drama. Indeed, while the people onscreen are actors, the carnage that surrounds them is perfectly real. Actual American soldiers in massive, armoured vehicles become unwitting extras in the story, often standing in the background of the giant film set that is Oday Rasheed’s Baghdad.
Prior to 2005, Iraqi cinema was subject to harsh censorship by Saddam Hussein’s government. In fact, perhaps the best known Iraqi film from that era is 1980’s Al-ayyam al-tawila, a six-hour biopic of Hussein himself which is widely considered state propaganda. However, since its release Underexposure has ushered in a new era of experimental, independent film-making in Iraq. This important film can be viewed in its entirety for free on Vimeo: