As Iraq rebuilds after decades of brutality, one Baghdad resident is bent on reviving an ancient folk tale that, like much of the country’s history, risks being lost in time.
“Baghdad Night” is a 10-minute 3D animated film made against all odds by an Iraqi team led by film-maker Furat al-Jamil.
It tells the story of the saalua, a ghoul known across Iraq and the Gulf who also makes a brief appearance in “One Thousand and One Nights”.
The saalua is used by parents to scare naughty children, but many now fear its story is fading as Iraq marches into modernity.
“I think most Iraqis have forgotten about her, but when I tell them about the saalua, they remember it, and they all smile and are happy, and remember their childhood,” said Jamil.
The film-maker, born to Iraqi and German parents, grew up in Baghdad.
She told AFP “Baghdad Night” was “an introduction to a new kind of cinema in Iraq… an introduction to Iraq”.
Jamil hopes her film, almost two years in the making and due for release later this year, will revive a classic tale she fears could be lost.
The film aims to give a snapshot of the city and its cultural heritage, but production has suffered from typically Iraqi obstacles — a lack of electricity, shortfalls in equipment, and staff leaving for better opportunities overseas.
Despite this, Jamil and her tiny team, working on a shoestring $180,000 (135,000-euro) budget, hope to meet a deadline to guarantee inclusion in December’s Dubai International Film Festival.
The saalua is briefly referred to in the “Tales of 1,001 Nights”, but has a greater foothold in Iraqi and Gulf folklore, as a ghoul or succubus used to frighten misbehaving children.
It appears in many different forms across Iraq, but the version Jamil wants to recreate is one she heard from her grandfather, who swore he followed a saalua into a cemetery.
That is the urban depiction of the saalua, a woman who seduces men into eternal servitude.
Zaydoon Hussein is in charge of the score, which ranges from environmental sound effects to recreate Baghdad to a version of Debussy’s “Clair de lune” on traditional Iraqi instruments.
Ghaith Shawqi and Haidar Abdulrahim are the film’s designers, the former using a grainy image of Jamil’s grandmother as inspiration for the saalua and the latter painstakingly recreating the streets of old Baghdad.
Rawaa Naimi and Fuad Hanun voice the saalua and a taxi driver who falls under her spell.
Set in present-day Baghdad, the film combines the city’s oldest neighbourhoods with a cemetery that is a nod to the Sheikh Omar burial ground where many of Jamil’s ancestors rest.
“Baghdad is very important,” Jamil said. “This saalua character is part of Baghdad.”
“There should be a movie about Baghdad that is a fairy tale, not only depressing stories or war stories.”
Jamil has had to confront obstacles film-makers elsewhere rarely face.
Early on, her lead designer and animator left Iraq, like many countrymen, when he was given the opportunity to take his family to the United States.
Throughout, her team has grappled with a lack of equipment and funding.
Hussein’s sound studio lacks state-of-the-art computers and recording tools, while Shawqi and Abdulrahim have to work wherever they can find the space.
And all are reliant on Iraq’s temperamental power supply, which becomes even worse during the boiling summer.
Shawqi said the computers at his disposal take weeks just to render the 3D animation, to say nothing of other problems he must work around.
“Electricity, it’s a big problem for us,” Shawqi said. Power cuts sometimes mean that massive files have to be rebuilt from scratch.
Funding has also come in fits and starts in a country with more pressing priorities than the arts.
Jamil initially put up most of the money herself, but she has since received grants from the Iraq-based Ruya Foundation and Enjaaz, a funding arm of the Dubai Film Market.
Iraq’s culture ministry has also promised her financial help.
Despite the difficulties, Jamil has high hopes of the project.
She plans to showcase visual interpretations of the saalua by different Iraqi artists in an exhibition running alongside the film.
And she also hopes that if “Baghdad Night” is successful, more short films could follow.