Behind the Curtain: An Iraqi Filmmaker’s Experience Within the UK Film & TV Industry

Dalia Al-Dujaili explores Iraqi representation in British TV & cinema and shares the story from filmmaker Mutana Al-Rubaye about his commitment to amplifying Iraqi voices in British media.

WORDS Dalia Al-Dujaili, founding editor of MISFiT and The Road to Nowhere Zine
IMAGES Courtesy of Mutana Al-Rubaye

For legal confidentiality reasons, the names of certain companies Mutana has worked with have had to be emitted.

British television and film has undergone a rather seismic shift during recent years in its Middle Eastern representation efforts, broadening its subject matter to focus on Iraq. Channel 4’s Baghdad Central earlier this year was a step in the right direction, although it certainly had its issues; with no main-role Iraqi actors and only one Iraqi producer. And BBC’s new Once Upon a Time in Iraq was a sombre yet necessary production. British-Iraqi’s are hoping that they can start looking to their own screens for fair representation of themselves instead of having to reluctantly turn to worn out terrorist tropes and the glorification of war-time destruction from the likes of The Hurt Locker, American Sniper, Official Secrets, War Dogs, and so on. Trust me (I’m Iraqi); we know there have been wars fought in our country over and over again. Iraq has not had it easy and we’re glad that British film and television is beginning to acknowledge the crucial hand it played; but we are so much more than war and terror. 

In order to even start thinking about all the different possible Iraqi stories that could be told divergent of war and terrorism, production teams need Iraqis at their helm. Simply considering the Iraqi perspective isn’t good enough. Imagine making a cooking show without cooks, or a nature documentary with no animals (Attenborough’s next challenge, perhaps). How is one meant to inform a viewer of an Iraqi experience without including Iraqi writers, producers, editors, assistants, runners, and everything in between?

How is one meant to inform a viewer of an Iraqi experience without including Iraqi writers, producers, editors, assistants, runners, and everything in between?

Dalia Al-Dujaili

Mutana Al-Rubaye is a London-based Iraqi film and television actor, screenwriter, filmmaker, and consultant. Before entering British production offices, he graduated from the Academy of Fine Art in Baghdad and was awarded a scholarship to study film at a film school in London. He graduated in 2007 but was unable to return home where the civil war was taking place. Mutana was granted political asylum to stay in the UK and carried on with his filmmaking career. He took on different jobs working for various British television companies as a translator and producer. Mutana founded his own London-based production company, House of Art Studios Ltd where he has produced, written, and directed his various arthouse short films.

I stumbled across Mutana’s story on an Iraqi Diaspora Creative facebook page, a group intended to connect Iraqi’s working in creative industries living across the globe. I read the post at rapid speed and immediately felt compelled to share his story. Mutana has experienced the devastation of his homeland but remains focused on amplifying candid Iraqi voices in British media. His positivity and determination is inspiring and gives Iraqis like me hope for the future of representation.
This is his story. 

Mutana
Al-Rubaye

I decided not to work with any British company from then on regardless of what they wanted to produce. I had realised my hopes of having Iraqi and Middle Eastern voices heard would have to depend on my initiative instead. 

“I came to the UK to study film and ended up staying in London as a political refugee after the civil war took place in Iraq. I was young and had to start from ground zero, while my parents were still residing in Baghdad. They went through unimaginable tragedy, eventually experiencing the death of my older brother.

Back then, I believed that my being in London could only be a good thing. Since I’m in media and film, I thought I probably had the advantage of getting the Iraqi voice at least somewhat heard. 

My very first problematic experience was during my film-school days when I was approached by a production company that was making a TV drama for Channel 4. The story was about an English lady whose husband had been taken hostage in Iraq. The writer was white-British, as was the director, producer, and so on. The story followed: she comes across an Iraqi student in London who is going to guide her to go to Iraq and help her find her husband. But, his brother turns out to be a terrorist. And, he also turned out to be part of the group that kidnapped the husband who, believe it or not, was in Iraq trying to sell arms. 

I remember laughing at the plot, but collected myself and told the producer, “Well…I think it is highly unlikely that an educated Iraqi family from a central area in Baghdad would have one of their sons studying abroad, and the other as a terrorist!”. The producer didn’t consider my consultation. “Yeah…”, he mused, “we asked some British journalists and your opinion sort of clashes with theirs”. This film project eventually didn’t materialise but I wondered, why on earth are these people trying to hire me if they don’t like my consultation on the script?

Subsequently, the Storyville BBC4 commission editor (a five-time Oscar nominee in Documentary) at the time asked to meet with me. I met the guy in a fancy cafe in Great Portland St. He asked me whether I’d want to go back to Baghdad and shoot a documentary for him about normal Iraqis during the Civil war. WOW! I thought. This is my big fucking break!

Except it was two months after I was granted political asylum in the UK. If I go back to a war zone now, I thought, there will be no prospect of returning to the UK. Never mind the fact that I could get killed during the process. I asked if I could direct the documentary remotely from London – I was in contact with professional cameramen on the ground at the time in Baghdad. They trusted me and they could have shot some great footage and interviews with normal people, families, Iraqi youth. But the BBC producer stipulated that I physically had to go back to Baghdad if I wanted to do this. In the end, I had to decline the offer. After all, it’s my life on the line, not his.

Fast-forward a few months; Guardian Films had hired me as a translator to work on a documentary for the fifth anniversary of the 2003 Iraq war. A great team, but a very depressing documentary for ITV. Eventually, they liked me and told me about a one-year paid internship. I was over the moon. But nearing the end of my gig as a translator, the company director unflinchingly asked me to go and research some of Al-Qaeda’s websites. I walked out on the last day, deciding not to pursue the internship after all. 

A few years later, I was hired by an agency to make short documentaries for a charity campaign to raise funds for Syrian civilians stuck in Aleppo. We managed to find a few subjects there and conducted Skype calls with them. Towards the end of the campaign, I asked the director of the agency, “What would be the situation if the Assad regime finds these interviews online and target our subjects?”. “Well…”, he replied, “they are in a war zone. They could be killed by anything”.

I decided not to work with any British company from then on regardless of what they wanted to produce. I had realised my hopes of having Iraqi and Middle Eastern voices heard would have to depend on my initiative instead. 

As a liberal Iraqi filmmaker who lives in the west and aspires to tell positive human stories about Iraq and Iraqis, inevitably, I will always come to a dead-end. The question that always poses itself: Why am I always destined to work on projects that are synonymous with war and terrorism?

London is one of the most expensive cities in the world and with all the financial difficulties that Londoners live with, I’m a guy with no family or any safety net of any kind. It makes it very easy to sell out. I can close my eyes, cover my ears, do what they asked me to do, say what they want me to say, and make a f*cking fortune. But isn’t that a bit like living under Saddam Hussein? Life is too short and it is simply not worth it.

All of the above happened for a good reason. I left working in media and went on to work in fashion for a while, then I went into music where I found a mix of genres (Arab-Gypsy-Punk). I performed in many venues and festivals around East London for a few years. I also found a new passion in my life; travelling. I hit the road, lived like a nomad, visited more than fifteen European countries, explored different cultures, and enjoyed meeting the travelling youth in backpackers hostels around Europe. 

Still from Al-Rubaye’s film ‘Dana Dana’

But I couldn’t help it. Before long, I returned to my first and only love… film. I established my own London based production company, House of Art Studios. I produced three short films; Thinking in a Loud Voice, Colours of Happiness, and (my most recent film), Dana Dana (Pearl Pearl). Dana Dana opened the Oscar-qualifying Jaipur International Film Festival in India, was screened at the Asian American Film Festival in New York, and had it’s European Premier at the UK’s biggest international film festival, East End Film Festival. I finally felt liberated and couldn’t have been happier with having unsolicited control over my creative artistic decisions and stories. 

The issue of underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Iraqis on-screen is now leading me to explore and develop more stories with Iraqi creatives. Working with Iraqis in the UK and abroad will allow us to create an international production company; the Iraqi Talent Agency.

The idea of the Iraqi Talent Agency is to create an alternative multimedia platform strictly represented by Iraqi talent. It aims to produce and tell Iraqi stories through TV, Film, Theatre, Music Performance, Podcasts, Poetry Performance, Art Exhibitions, Publications, and more, from a purely Iraqi perspective. Hopefully, this will bring a unique Iraqi experience to light and help to build the bridge between the pool of local and diasporic Iraqi talent with mainstream international media platforms. This would be the first international Iraqi team of its kind.”

***

Mutana is currently focused on developing his upcoming debut feature film, Do Re Me, about an Iraqi musician and refugee who arrives in the US after the Iraq war and goes on a roadtrip across America meeting the kind, the beautiful, and the dangerous individuals of American society. Mutana is also writing the feature Colours of Happiness based on his short film of the same title about a rock star whose fame comes to an end and lives with a constant internalized struggle. Mutana has recently been accepted onto an MA acting program at Plymouth University. He’s also developing a solo performance for stage about a flying magical carpet which allows for time travel between today’s Baghdad and the ‘glorious golden age’ of the city within the 780-790s era. 

For more information on House of Art Studios visit their facebook page, and watch an exclusive preview of Mutana’s latest film Dana Dana here.

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