In December 2006, when Saddam Hussein was put to death, Iraq had gone through its most severe year of sectarian violence since the US-led invasion three years prior.
The reason why Maysoon Pachachi, an Iraqi filmmaker, selected that particular year as the setting for her fictional movie about Baghdad during the time of US occupation was because of its significance. Instead of having a main character, the film follows a group of individuals who live in the same neighborhood and are connected through various circumstances, all while facing the challenges of violence and curfews.
Pachachi, aged 76, expressed his desire to share a collective narrative from the beginning. He wrote and directed Our River… Our Sky, which received the award for best ensemble performance at the 2022 British independent film awards and is currently showing in UK cinemas.
She explains that Persian miniatures served as her inspiration. Each painting depicts a market scene with various stories unfolding in every corner, such as a mother with her child and two merchants engaged in an argument. Ultimately, these paintings capture a collective portrait of a specific time and place, which greatly resonated with her.
Pachachi stated that she did not intend for there to be a main character. She wanted each character to hold equal importance and be united in the story.
The war in the film has caused destruction to everyone’s life. A large number of individuals are departing from Baghdad. Sara, a single mother and writer, is contemplating whether she should leave for the safety of her daughter, Reema. Sara has also lost her passion for writing as everything she creates now feels dishonest.
According to Kamal, a taxi driver, the act of forgetting is a gift from God. Dijla is responsible for caring for her brother who was left disabled by a bomb during the 1991 Gulf war. Mustafa has sustained injuries following a kidnapping. Haidar, a teenage boy who lost his mother in mysterious circumstances, is being recruited by a gang. Mona is pregnant. Meanwhile, an unidentified cleaner is sweeping a street that was damaged by an explosion while the debris is still smoldering.
Pachachi’s debut fiction film, Our River… Our Sky, marks a new chapter in her filmmaking journey. Prior to this, she has primarily worked in the realm of documentary filmmaking and has also been involved in training aspiring filmmakers, with a particular emphasis on the Arab world and women in exile.
One of the first documentaries she worked on as producer and editor was Voices from Gaza, during the first intifada (1989) for Channel 4. Iranian Journey in 2000 followed a female bus driver on a 24-hour trip across the country.
According to her, fiction allowed her to delve deeper into a character’s inner workings.
Pachachi, currently residing in London, was born in the United States to an Iraqi diplomat as her father. She spent her childhood traveling between Iraq, the US and the UK. She received her education at the London Film School, where she was mentored by the acclaimed British writer and director, Mike Leigh.
After 35 years, Pachachi went back to Iraq following the 2003 invasion. She was shocked by what she discovered. She describes the conflict as a destructive force.
The situation had completely crumbled. The nation had been devastated by conflict and faced with “unprecedented sanctions”.
She and another director from London and Iraq, Kasim Abid, established a film center in Baghdad to provide free training to young Iraqi filmmakers and journalists. This would allow them to share their personal narratives.
“These conflicts are fought and when the violence ceases, everyone believes it is the end. However, it is not truly over as people still have to cope with the consequences,” she explains. “You witness the aftermath of an explosion, you witness a woman crying and grieving, but you have no knowledge of her identity or the son she has lost. These individuals remain unknown to you.”
During the 1991 Gulf War, she recalls watching extensive news coverage of bombs and buildings being destroyed, but never once seeing an ordinary Iraqi person being interviewed on screen. The Iraqi war has largely been portrayed through a US lens in films and media.
According to her, individuals are more likely to support wars if they can perceive those affected by war as distinct from themselves.
She explains that if someone becomes emotionally invested in a character, they may begin to imagine themselves in the character’s situation and consider how they would react.
The setting of Our River… Our Sky does not include tanks or soldiers. The war serves as a backdrop, with the main focus on the lives of ordinary people. “I am not drawn to the violence or blood on the streets, my interest lies in how people respond to these events.”
One key scene, based on actual events, depicts a group of people, including Sara, on a bus stuck in traffic. There are gunshots in the street and someone running between cars is killed. Someone on the bus cracks a joke.
“In 2006, during a period of sectarian violence, Iraq was comparable to a place of constant humor,” Pachachi explains. “It’s a common trait among Baghdadis. I also believe that in the midst of all the destruction, people find ways to resist. They sing, they joke, they flirt, they desire to have children. To me, these actions are forms of resistance against the struggles they must endure.”
The title of the film in Arabic is Kulshi Makoo. According to Pachachi, this is a phrase commonly used in Iraq. It can be translated as “nothing’s wrong” when someone is asked if they are feeling okay, but in reality, there may be an underlying issue.
Our film Our River…Our Sky is currently playing in theaters.