The view from a bridge: Talking 'Our River... Our Sky' with Maysoon Pachachi & Talal Al-Muhanna

'Our River... Our Sky' is the narrative feature debut by renowned London-based, Iraqi filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi and it world premiered at this year's Sarajevo Film Festival.
The view from a bridge: Talking 'Our River... Our Sky' with Maysoon Pachachi & Talal Al-Muhanna

There is a prevailing sense of poetry that runs as a thread through Maysoon Pachachi's work. It is perfectly accompanied by the fluid tones of the filmmaker's voice and her well thought-out words when speaking about her latest film. Along with her Kuwait-based producer Talal Al-Muhanna, the duo make for a fascinating conversation and a bridge across cultures. One only has to think back to the First Gulf War to realise what an inspiring alliance this is between them.

With her latest film Our River... Our Sky Pachachi has traveled outside her comfort zone, even though she returned to Iraq for its story. Co-written with Iraqi-born novelist and women's rights activist Irada Al-Jubori, Our River... Our Sky is a beautiful, haunting and at times jarring slice of life look at Iraq in the last week of 2006, a time marred by extreme sectarian violence and nightly curfews in Baghdad. At the center of the story are Sara, a single mother and novelist with a tragic case of writer's block, and Reema her daughter, who knows more about what is going on that she lets on. But the film is also about the people of Baghdad -- an ensemble piece, terrifically acted and perfectly written.

I caught up with Pachachi and Al-Muhanna via Zoom, as they were getting ready to world premiere Our River... Our Sky at the Sarajevo Film Festival where the film screened as part of their "Dealing with the Past" programme.

Right now we're talking about the after effects of the US presence in Afghanistan, of course, and your film talks about the effects of the US and the Allies presence in Iraq. Did you ever imagine the film was going to be so actual and just so perfectly timed and how does that feels for you?

Maysoon Pachachi: Actually, we didn’t because we filmed the film in 2019 and by the time we finished it and finally got to a place where we could show it things started going on in Afghanistan. I think I felt that this related for example to the sorts of experiences that people in Sarajevo went through — deep sectarian divides. That is the connection that I made, I didn’t think about Afghanistan. 

There was a long process because I remember when the film won the IWC award in Dubai. And from then to now it has been quite a while. How has that experience been for you, was it challenging to find producers?

Pachachi: Well I was taken aback by how long it took to actually find the funding and put the production structure together, Talal was brilliant at doing that. And he was the first on board in 2012 and it was with him that I went to the Dubai Film Festival, and we got the award. That was a big boost because it was the very first part of our proper production money. But then we needed to sort of put together the rest of the money and that came from lots of different sources. Many people supported this film, but it was very very slow and patchy. And one of the reasons for that might have been that this was my first fiction film, I’m mostly a documentary filmmaker, also, its structure is quite different from a lot of films, it doesn't have a classical kind of hero or heroine, whose story is the focus of the film, while all the other characters around them are there to support that main story. For me, everybody was equal, I wanted to tell a collective story, because in the kind of the situation in which we were placing the film, means that people often feel that they are living part of a collective story  - The powerful external circumstances mean that one way or another people are dealing with the same things.   This is not the way people feel when things are more settled. I think that was problematic for people who wanted a more traditional, three act structure.

Did you ever think, when you were having trouble securing funding, that you would try to make it as a documentary and was the film ever conceived as a documentary because of your background?

Pachachi: No, it never was conceived as that. And part of the reason was that there's a way in which fiction can sometimes reach to the internal drama that's going on in a way that is more difficult to do in a documentary. And I wanted to do that because there were very specific stories that were based on real life experiences that I and my co-writer had experienced in Iraq — although not based on particular people. 

Talal Al-Muhanna: I might interject a little bit in the sense that, you know, often, we would get to a scene in the script or a sequence, and some questions would come up about that. And often, if I'm honest, the answer Maysoon would give was, “that's how it really happened.” Because you had seen that on the street or Irada [Al Jabbouri] had been sitting on a bus and those people had told the jokes in that certain way… So I do think, to some degree, there was a kind of real life, set of experiences that got transferred over into that fiction template that I believe that you and Irada stuck to quite doggedly in a sense, and I'll admit that sometimes we argued about that more than once or twice! That's real life, you know, it's not necessarily what’s needed to make the scene work in fiction.

But for those who know Maysoon, have had long dinners with Maysoon, and understand her style of storytelling in a sense, she has a very attenuated storytelling process that tries to give the listener or the viewer, the same sense of appreciation that she had for that thing when it actually happened in a sense. I think it's just a particular way of seeing the world and experiencing the world, and it is also something which is reflected in her documentary films as well.

Pachachi: I think I've spent my life for one reason or another observing and looking at things and trying to intuit what stories are beneath the surface. It’s like we're standing on a corner in a big city, and there are people waiting with you at the traffic light — you don't know them, they are strangers. But there's a kind of intimacy and a kind of sense that you get if you're aware, a sense that you get of what their lives might be. 

Is your film political?

Pachachi: Political? Yeah, in a general sense of the word, yes I think it is political. I think most of my films have been in one way or the other. And in Iraq there are all kinds of issues, like corruption, which is almost endemic to the country. So, yes, I would say they're political -- though they're not overtly political. This is not a kind of agitprop film, which I don't think any of my films really have been, but in a wide sense there are political themes. 

Do you think that religion is a form of politics as well?

Pachachi: Well it has been, it has become. In many places in the world it has become a sort of politics — it's a form of who has the power. You know, it's jockeying for positions in governmental structures in many different places and to just murderous. I think, in our part of the world it's all over.

Photo by Khaleejesque Media

Al-Muhanna: I just want to address also your question about politics in a sense too because I think one of the angles on the project is that it's as much about a project as it is about a film. Because it is a project written by Iraqi women for one; it is therefore also the first internationally co-produced film that's made by Iraqi women. So, Iraqi co-writers and Iraqi female director. 

It's wonderful Talal because it's almost as if you read my mind what the next question was going to be. I was going to ask you, Maysoon what it feels like to carry this label of first narrative female Iraqi filmmaker?

Pachachi: Well actually, I feel more able to handle it, a little bit more comfortable about it. You know I don't like hyperboles, but that business of first internationally, co-produced film in Iraq by a woman is just factual, it’s the truth. And that’s all I take is as, which could be of interest to people. 

Talal, how did you become involved in the project?

Al-Muhanna: I got introduced to the project by a relative in London who is an actress and we had a mutual friend in Maysoon. She mentioned that Maysoon was working on a fiction project and I had already seen some of Maysoon’s work as an editor in films presented in Dubai at Gulf Film Festival. So I was familiar with her work and we had met at some festivals in the UAE.  At the time, I’d been doing documentaries for some years and I thought I'll have a look at the script. It's always interesting when I find something new that I haven't done before and I’m a big supporter of emerging talent and established filmmakers who want to tackle new ways of working. I'm a very curious producer and this ticked a lot of boxes for me: It was a diaspora filmmaker and it was looking at stories from Iraq - but not through a Hollywoood lens and the perspective of American soldiers, as in Hurt Locker. And that's really what I aim to do as a producer, to produce Arab filmmakers who tell Arab stories from an Arab perspective – even if a diaspora one.  The main thing for me was that the story was situated in Iraq, but coming from somebody from there too. And it wasn't something that I had come across before. Also, what I found over the last 10 years, is that there aren’t so many Arab producers who will produce a film from another country in the Arab world. So, a producer from the Maghreb won't produce a Levantine film and vice versa. As a Kuwaiti filmmaker I’ve produced Arab films in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon and the U.S. - not just projects from the Gulf countries. I never felt like I had to be nationalistic as a producer somehow. So when this came up — and, yes, there's some history there between Iraq and Kuwait - it was really about the filmmaker and the things she was trying to say about the time the story was set in. 

One of things you say, Maysoon, in your director's statement, is that you feel your home is on a bridge, with your gaze towards both sides. I think that really expresses who you are — who you both are really, because you have this openness about the projects that you pick and the stories that you tell. Do you think that viewpoint from a bridge should be where we all stand to view the world?

Pachachi: I came up with that idea when I wondered, where do I belong? And I have actually lived in different places all my life. And so I was always a kind of stranger, but also could mesh into whatever, wherever I was. And finally, at some point I don't know at what age but at some point I decided, okay, so you're a person who lives on a bridge. And actually, a bridge is not a bad place to be. You can see both sides of the river and maybe you can be a conduit and explain things about people on one side of the river to those on the other side.. Whether everybody should be on a bridge, I don't know.

But I think having a sense of people who are supposed to be someone other than you is really important. Especially today. 

You may also like