London (Reuters): Hollywood directors risk big budgets and reputations when they work. Iraqi film makers risk their lives. When Ammar Saad was shooting his documentary Damned Gum, about the dangers of being a journalist in Baghdad since the U.S. invasion in 2003, a bomb went off metres from where he stood and blood was spattered over his camera lens. It is the kind of experience that would put many off. But along with dozens of others in Iraq, the 28-year-old photographer is determined to tell his story on celluloid.
His next project is a feature-length film about a man who ventures out of his Baghdad apartment for the first time in three years, finally overcoming the fear he has of being killed. ''It's strange how everything is interlinked'' Saad said of the new movie. ''This guy puts himself in danger and I am doing the same thing, just like him. Who knows what awaits me.'' Damned Gum was a joint winner of the best documentary category at the First International Iraq Short Film Festival held in Baghdad last September, an event which attracted 140 entries, much to the surprise of its organiser Nizar Rawi. ''When we asked established directors, they said this project was stupid and that we would get no more than six or seven entries,'' he told Reuters during a visit to Britain, where some of the films are being shown at the Cambridge Film Festival. ''We were really surprised by the huge number of entrants.'' The films include cartoons, documentaries and dramas, and often tell a grim story with surprising levity.
''Just Playing'' opens with a boy crawling along a ladder being held just off the ground by some friends. Using a net on a stick, he carefully retrieves a soccer ball from the middle of a minefield. As the game resumes on a dusty field next to the mined area, we learn that the boy has lost a leg and plays on crutches. A second film, Contradiction, shows nectar-eating bees being attacked by a bee-eating hornet.
''One of the reasons I particularly liked what happened in Iraq was the sidelong glance at what they had been going through,'' said Catherine Day, who has travelled to Baghdad and been involved in cultural reconstruction. A third entry, The Office of Security, directed by Hadi Mahood, makes the point that life in Iraq today is not necessarily better than under Saddam Hussein. The documentary, set in a building once belonging to Saddam's security apparatus, features a man once held and tortured there who now lives in the bombed out ruins along with other families who have nowhere else to go.
Rawi, who plans another festival in Baghdad in October or November, said that to talk of a renaissance in Iraqi cinema was premature. He has heard of a blacklist of ''intellectuals'' drawn up by insurgents, raising concern among film-makers. ''This means that 400 Iraqis, and their friends and families, are afraid, and will either leave Iraq or stop what they are doing,'' he said. ''I am more worried than I was in the past.'' Iraqi film is trying to rise from the ashes not only of war, but also years of economic sanctions. Two of the biggest Iraqi film projects since the U.S. invasion - Kilometre Zero and Turtles Can Fly - have been made in the relatively safe northern part of the country.