Embarking on an all-Iraqi animation project within a country still recovering from the last few decades of upheaval presents particular problems and possibilities. Completing the short 3D animation Baghdad Night (2013), Iraqi/German artist Furat al-Jamil and her team were confronted not only by the challenges facing any independent animation project, but site specific ones as well.
The success of this ambitious project was constantly threatened by poor and unreliable power sources, team members leaving the country, and the difficulty of finding funding in a place more concerned with the physical reconstruction of the country then supporting the arts. Yet this work, which premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2013, stands as a testimony not only to the possibilities of animation projects in Iraq, but more importantly to how art can be used in rebuilding a nation.
In a time when the persistent violence of the nation’s wars and transformations continues to be at the centre of its concerns, al-Jamil’s work stands out in its efforts to use animation to preserve a piece of traditional Iraqi culture. Baghdad Night tells the story of the saalua, a ghost that appears in 1001 Arabian Nights and is also a popular character in Iraqi folklore, and her appearance one night in a noir-styled rendering of Baghdad.
Using animation to recreate a city whose face has been inextricably altered, al-Jamil’s work recaptures and preserves this physical space of culture as well as the fantastic traditions of the region. Further, by converting this popular regional folktale into a film whose style is reminiscent of popular 3D video games, al-Jamil’s animation represents the possibilities of re-establishing the younger generation’s connection with their past and culture; a crucial task in the reshaping of a nation where nearly 50% of the population is under 18.
Al-Jamil’s groundbreaking work has defied challenges and shown that these artistic endeavors are possible and necessary in Iraq’s reformation. This was the sentiment at the successful Pavilion of Iraq at the 55th Venice Biennale, which include another piece of al-Jamil’s work. Sponsored by the Ruya Foundation, who produced Baghdad Night, the artists and the foundation hoped through their works to show the many sides of Iraq and promote local culture in a time when the nation’s priorities are focused elsewhere. Al-Jamil has contributed to this by not only portraying pieces of the Iraqi culture beyond the war but by showing that these projects can happen in Iraq and that there is the possibility for artists and animators to create within the country and produce a truly Iraqi national animation which, in turn, preserves and reconstructs the nation’s culture.
Al Arabiya News ‘ “Baghdad Night” keeps alive folk tales of the dead’ online, available: http://english.alarabiya.net/en/life-style/art-and-culture/2013/09/05/-Baghdad-Night-keeps-alive-folk-tales-of-the-dead.html (accessed 1 April)
The Pavilion of Iraq at the 55th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia ‘Welcome to Iraq’ online, available: http://www.theiraqpavilion.com/ (accessed 8 May)
Ruya Foundation online, available: http://www.ruyafoundation.org/ (accessed 7 May)
Amber Shields is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews where she is researching representations of collective trauma in fantasy films from around the world. She received her MPhil in Screen Media and Cultures from the University of Cambridge and her BA in Latin American Studies from Carleton College. She is currently working on a chapter on Iraqi animation to appear in the edited collection on Animation in the Middle East forthcoming with I.B. Tauris, 2015.