For AIFF’s juror, film is more than just an art form

Samir, an Iraqi-Swiss producer and this year’s AIFF juror. (Photo: Handout from Samir)
AMMAN — Samir apologizes at least four times for being late (he’s not), before reminding me that he’s also Swiss. The award-winning director and juror at the Amman International Film Festival (AIFF) grabs tea from a nearby table of free snacks and then comments on how he loves that the recorder app on my iPhone is designed to look like an actual tape recorder.اضافة اعلان

He apologizes one more time after that. I tell him not to worry too much. I’m an American — we have short memories. 

Our respective nationalities, as it turned out, bore significance in the beginning of our conversation. Samir is best known for his deeply personal documentaries that delve into his own Iraqi-Swiss identity, often embracing nuanced, complicated themes of diasporic cultural alienation. 

It was darkly appropriate that Samir had been selected as a juror for a film festival occurring one week after one of the fastest and most disturbing regime changes in recent history. 

“Of course, when I heard that I should go now to Amman to sit as the juror and in the same moment saw the pictures of Afghanistan, I was, let's say, in an ambiguous situation,” he said. 

He had been working for years prior to the current fallout to help an Afghan veterinarian, who had previously worked with the US government as a translator. 

The takeover of the Taliban all but secured the translator’s ability to stay in Switzerland. 

“At that moment, I knew: ‘Okay, now he will have the permission after these years. So, I was lucky,” he said.  “I'm coming from one of the richest countries in the world. And they allowed only 200 Afghans to come to Switzerland.

So, I feel ashamed in a way. I really feel ashamed. That was my feeling before I came.’”

Samir is serving as the juror for the feature-length film category of the AIFF.

He said his documentaries Forget Baghdad and Iraqi Odyssey, Switzerland’s 2015 submission for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film, are his best-known works. 

But themes of migration, as well as his ability to equally subvert and embrace sensitive cultural issues, are also prevalent in his expansive catalogue of feature work. 

“Any art film is helping to shift these prejudices away,” he said. “But at the same time, we should also be very critical and accept that we also have bigotry and whatever strange ideas also in our own society.” 

He recounted backlash from friends after the release of his most recent feature film, Baghdad in My Shadow. 

“At the end, an Islamist is attacking this woman with a knife. So, this is a very cliché stereotype,” he said. “But on the other hand, it's also happening every day. So, what should I do now? Not tell it? The question is always how to tell the stories.”

The conflict between estrangement and the embrace of culture, often framed through stories of migration, is a longstanding theme in Arab cinema. The challenge of presenting these themes concerns another form of push and pull. Samir began producing for other Arab filmmakers, but this came with hurdles of low funding, among others.

“It’s very difficult for me to support Arab filmmakers (in Switzerland),” he said. “Even though I want to, it's only possible (when we) find tricks to make ‘minority’ co-productions. So, it's very complicated.

The European system of funding is totally different than, let's say, in Egypt or for in the US.”

And censorship in storytelling in the Middle East has proven to be yet another obstacle for Samir. He recalled pitching a comedy that involved a gay romance as a side-plot to an Egyptian producer. 

“When I pitched it like that, I saw her eyes like ...” His eyes mock-widen, and he raises his hands in a gesture of disbelief. 

It is hardly surprising that, as subject matter and culture collide, producers like Samir face distribution challenges. Western film societies often treat issues of migration and Arab representation as niche stories (to be used sparingly), and government censorship in the Middle East often leads to the death of controversial projects.

Nevertheless, Samir wants to help his audience and industry understand that, in this “crazy world”, migration stories are not exclusively for Iraqis or Afghans.
“Stories of migrant people are so obvious, you know,” he said. “But on the other hand, (their) diversity shows us that we could be a lot of different people, and to be happy also.”

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