|Koutaiba Al Janabi is a cinematographer and filmmaker who is born in Baghdad, he studied film and photography in Budapest and lives in London. He was the Director of Photography on Jiyan by Jano Rosebiani, a self-taught Kurdish/American filmmaker. Jaap Mees interviews him:
How did you meet Jano Rosebiani?
Koutaiba Al Janabi: Jano came to London to interview several Directors of Photography. He saw my work and visited me at home. I think he chooses me because I know Kurdistan, the people and culture.
What were the biggest obstacles in making Jiyan?
It was nice to be back home in Northern Iraq, my country. I’m familiar with the faces and the light. That was the biggest challenge to work with the strong sunlight. We used a lot of filters and diffusers. We worked mainly with non-professionals, except Rosebiani, main actor Kurdo Galali and some others. People were very clever and intuitive, they picked it up quickly. We used everything around us, wood, flags, stuff we bought on the market. We also got some support from Kurdish satellite tv stations. Jiyan was the first real Kurdish film made.
Bahman Ghobadi made the fantastic film A Time for Drunken Horses. He was a Kurd, wasn’t he?
He is an Iranian- Kurdish, but he comes more form an Iranian film background, it’s different. To get into Kurdistan is very difficult. Neighbours like Turkey and Syria close the border at 5pm. We had a huge crew, everybody wanted to work on this film, film-school students, theatre people they all wanted to be part of this event. I had a very nice young guy, Dilsha, who helped me carrying the camera.
How did Jano find the lead actor Kurdo Galadi?
Rosebiani met him in Canada and rehearsed with him in the USA. Jano spent seven(!) months with him to prepare the film, they had to wait for the production money to come through. I joined them shortly before the shoot which lasted two months. Most people in the film are non-professional actors, but they loved to be in front of the camera.
Did Rosebiani use a storyboard?
Funny you mention that. That was the main difference between us. He thought already about the editing during the shoot, I focus more on building the scene itself. That was sometimes difficult, he thinks very visually, he really made the film in the editing.
What special moment do you remember clearly from shooting Jiyan?
I remember a special moment that ended up on the cutting floor. A scene with a young boy, who I loved filming. The total length of the film was three hours. Part of the cut footage will be used in the second part of the trilogy, Jiyan was the first part of. The second film is called Smile. By the way the Rotterdam International Film Festival was instrumental in realising this film.
The Rotterdam Hubert Bals Fund financed Jiyan partly. I heard the Rotterdam Festival is now the leading Independent Film Festival in Europe.
What is the main theme of Jiyan?
The story is centred on the chemical attack by Saddam Hussein on Halabja where 5000 Kurdish people got killed by chemical and biological weapons, and 9 000 people were mutilated for life. I think Saddam wanted to show the world that he could use these chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war. I made a documentary once for Channel 4 about a woman who tried to save a baby from these chemical attacks, it damaged her arms and legs.
How do you select your projects?
First of all the story, I find that the most important, when the plot is right, I can make a film anywhere. Once I made a film with a huge budget, but that was probably the worst film I have done. The idea, the people involved in front of and behind the camera make the film. Essential is the conviction and belief in the film.
Is it more difficult to make a film in London than in Budapest?
I think it’s more difficult in London, because people are more social and supportive in Budapest. Here you need big name actors and be well connected, otherwise nobody gives you any attention. It’s rather sad, why do you think there are so many depressed people in London? I think this country needs a revolution.
There is much social misery here: unemployment, loneliness, depression, but this is hardly reflected in the films we make here, because there is no market for social realism in the UK. I think the Government should help filmmakers who want to document the way we live now, the real life.
Imagine when people get rid off Saddam Hussein, would you consider going back to Iraq and make a film there?
When they give me money to make a good film, why not? A possible collapse of the Saddam regime gives me new hope, but I’m worried what the price of that hope will be. People in Iraq are hungry for change, I think when Iraq would open the border, nobody would stay there. Scaring is that nobody knows what America is going to do, perhaps they will use the Nuclear bomb against us. The Iraqi are caught up in the middle, they are victims of Saddam and of America.
Back to filmmaking, which filmmakers do you like?
All the films by Wim Wenders, especially Paris,Texas. Jim Jarmusch and Woody Allen. The work of Mike Leigh, most films about real life, the human condition. Also Iranian cinema people like Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf and Ghobadi.
I also love Dogma films, even when they can be a bit rigid in their restrictions sometimes. I really enjoyed Festen by Thomas Vinterberg.
You told me that you are invited to be in the Jury of a film Festival in Abu Dhabi?
They show seven of my short film there and have a celebration afterwards. The films, Wasteland, Still Life, No Man’s Land, The Train all deal with the theme of being in exile. They are all about waiting, emptiness, searching for a home, alienation. Composition and lighting are essential. They are the result of feeling a stranger in your own skin, being in a complete different environment and culture.
Yes and I made two new films My Friend Nasir and Transient. My Friend Nasir is beaten up in a racial attack and has to go to hospital with a black eye. There he meets somebody who is just beaten up by black people, so the film makes the point that racism is not just a black issue.
What are your future plans?
I’m planning to make a feature about refugees. Similar to my short films with emphasis on the visual side, in an experimental style. The aim is to bring the format and style of the shorts in to a full length feature.
I am also working on merging my photographs into a film with music, experimenting with the new technical digital technology.
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