Friday, March 31, 2006

Iraq In Fragments - James Longley Interview - Pt. 6 - Final Questions

Q: What did you do for cash while you were there? How did you get money? What was the currency people were using?

A: The Iraqi currency is the Iraqi Dinar. There was a period of massive inflation during the Gulf War period where a lot of people lost their life savings but, surprisingly, it stayed fairly steady between the pre-war and post-war period. I think it went from being 1500 Dinar to the dollar to being 2000, maximum 3000 Dinar. So I was expecting hundreds of percent decline of value of the Dinar following the war, but they basically stabilized it artificially enough and fixed it to the dollar and then the United States introduced a new currency that didn't have Saddam on it, where they basically chopped off three zeros and it became easier to deal with. So, you could use the local currency, but the dollar was still completely transferable, people would prefer dollars if you had them and just as anywhere with currencies which were selling dollars there's a difference in the market between the buying and selling rate so,AeP

Q: Were you generally walking around with a giant wad of cash?
A: No, I never walked around with a big wad of anything. Not, at least, because I didn't have a big wad of cash, but I generally didn't carry a lot of money on me in Iraq. I would sort of, I only ever had $2000 or $3000 at a time, maximum, and I would keep it stored away somewhere, hidden in my hotel room or something like that. But it was tough to get money into the country. Like I said, it was a fairly low budget production until the end of shooting, but that first two-and-a-half years, where it was pre-production/production, it was done entirely on money coming from the video sales of The Gaza Strip, which is available through Arab Film Distribution here and you can get it on Amazon or whatever. But basically every quarter a royalty check would come in, they would transfer it into my bank account here, then my mother,AeP because you can't, I thought, well okay, I'll go online, I'll do wire transfers from my US bank account to a Jordanian bank account and then,AeP but you can't actually, you can't go online, they don't let you make wire transfers internationally from outside the country through the internet. You know, they're trying to prevent people from moving money around, moving money outside the country, from abroad. So I'm sure there are ways of doing it, but not through the kind of bank account I have, which is your average, normal whitebread bank account. And so what I had to do was basically, money would come into, and it was literally only like $1500 a month, my bank account here [Seattle], then I would go online and transfer money from my account to my mother's account, which is also in the United States, then she would make a wire transfer outside the United States to a bank in Jordan or Turkey, which had agreements with banks or companies inside Iraq, then they would get a bank transfer with a particular name and passport number attached to it and I would hopefully be in their records somewhere and then I'd go to them and say, 'I've transferred x number of dollars'. They would take their percentage off the top, I'd get my money and that's how you got money into Iraq. There are no bank machines. And the banking structure didn't work that well. There are no international banks in Iraq and so it's only because they have agreements with banks and companies outside that you're able to move money into the country. So, it's a great mechanism by which the Iraqis are able to move money outside the country without actually physically moving the money.
Q: So how was the food? Did you gain or lose weight while you where there?
A: I was actually keeping in fairly good shape, better than I am here, because I would swim a lot. In Baghdad there was the Al Hamra Hotel next door to our primitive lowly apartment building where all the indie journalists lived. You could go there and pay $5 and swim in the pool all day, which on a 120-)()( day is great. And so I got into fairly good shape while I was there. While I've been here I've been in a windowless room editing constantly for six months, eating sushi and gaining weight, so,AeP and there you're working, you're moving around, it's completely different. But the food is,AeP it's not terrible if you don't mind chicken and rice. You can eat a lot of chicken and rice very cheaply in Iraq with different sauces. Tomato based sauces or, in the North sometimes you could get a really good,AeP what kind of fruit is that,AeP not a peach, but a,AeP
Q: An apricot?
A: Apricot sauce. Yeah, you could get a side of roast chicken with rice and apricot sauce and pine nuts.
Q: Sounds pretty good.
A: After a long day of filming, you could really dive into one of those. But the fact is there wasn't a lot of diversity and this is the restaurants that we're talking about. And it was essentially the same whether you were in Nasiriya or up in the North in Arbil. The food had zero variation with a few notable exceptions in Baghdad. There was a Chinese restaurant in Baghdad, there was also a Chinese restaurant in Suleimaniyah where I went once and that was the only escape from the drudgery of chicken and rice and salads made of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. It's not bad, but it does get tiring after awhile and while I was living in the North I would use the hotel's kitchen and I would just go in there and have my own saucepans and frying pans and I would make different pastas and curries and all kinds of stuff just to keep myself alive without having to eat chicken with rice every single day and the people there thought I was totally crazy. They would smell this garlic and onions and curry powder frying in the kitchen and they would say, "You're gassing us like Saddam Hussein. It's the next gas attack!" They had no idea what it was, they had never smelled anything like it.
Q: Your project came about when, during the Q&A following the premiere of The Gaza Strip, someone asked: "What are you going to make next?" So, to bring it around full circle, what is your next project?
A: Actually, I'm not sure yet, that's the brutal truth. It's not that I don't have any ideas, it's just that I probably have too many at this stage. I'm in this weird situation where, having won awards for best director, best editor, best cinematographer on this movie at Sundance, I'm having really good critical feedback on the film so far. I feel like if I were to go with a serious pitch on any important subject to a good national broadcaster, be it PBS or The BBC or even Danish TV or whoever, then I would probably get more interest than I did in the past. Anyway, it would be taken more seriously than when I approached them with The Gaza Strip where no one really wanted to hear about it. So there's this weird feeling where I feel like I could pretty much immediately go out and get up front funding, development funding, for a new project and I have a lot of different ideas. I'm just not sure which one is the right one yet and it's a difficult decision, because once you jump in to a project, at least for an obsessive-compulsive person like me, I can't really stop then, you know what I mean? I can't go half-way and then say well, this wasn't a very good idea, so I feel very much impelled to,AeP. compelled? Is there a word impelled?
Q: There is a word 'impelled'.
A: Yeah, there is.
Q: But I think it has a more passive connotation.
A: Yes. I feel very compelled to,AeP laughs,AeP to pick a particular project before embarking on it and it's sometimes difficult to predict what the right project is going to be. I mean, in the case of Iraq, even, say ahead of time,AeP but the United States is definitely going to invade the country, they're definitely going to overthrow the government and they're definitely going to occupy the country and it's definitely going to be an important story for years and years into the future. Right now you can basically predict the United States is going to do something to Iran. You're not exactly sure what it's going to be and there's even less certainty about what would happen if that did take place. If the United States did start to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities you could pretty much bet it would result in a lot of trouble, but not predict necessarily that if you even got into Iran in the first place, you'd be able to film anything in that circumstance . I think it's highly unlikely that the United States would be able to overthrow the Iranian government without serious repercussions and it wouldn't go anything like the way it's gone in Iraq, which is badly, it would go probably far worse. So in that kind of circumstance, even though you can predict that something's going to happen, there's no way of predicting whether you'll be able to make a film about it and that's very difficult. And there are a lot of other subjects in the world that are worthy of documenting. North Korea is very interesting. You can't get into North Korea. There's nothing you can really film there as far as I can tell. It would take a miracle to get access in a place like that.
Q: I saw a Dutch documentary at SIFF this past year shot in North Korea [North Korea - A Day in the Life]. It was interesting, but you didn't get to see very much.
A: Right. I mean it's one of those things where if you get to see anything at all you're lucky. And you know, the problem with an independent documentary filmmaker who's interested in big political and social issues, but also wants to do everything from a kind of ground level point of view with ordinary people as the main characters is that oftentimes you run into a situation where the place where you want to film happens to be a police state or a dictatorship or otherwise very difficult. For example, while Egypt is full of interesting stories and interesting people, you simply can't make a film there as an American journalist and that's highly unfortunate. There may be ways of doing it that I haven't discovered yet but my impression of Egypt, while I was there during the war, was they would not be interested in having people make films about ordinary people. You know, they want you to film documentaries about pyramids and camels and then afterwards they complain Americans don't know anything about Egypt except pyramids and camels. So, it's this complete hypocrisy and self-defeating nonsense that most of these big authoritarian Arab governments are engaged in.
Q: Have you thought of the possibility of doing a documentary on Muslims living in Europe? I would think that would be a fascinating subject.
A: Or, indeed, the United States. I thought of doing something about France and the Algerian and Moroccan population in Paris. I was thinking about that before the riots broke out and then I thought to myself, well this story has already broken and now there's bound to be ten different documentary filmmakers working on it in France, who speak French and who probably also speak Arabic and the North African variety of Arabic and I can't really compete. Same thing with Iran. In Iraq there really wasn't anyone who was on the ground making films from the local population that I knew of. So, it seemed like there was a reason, there was room for someone to come in from outside and make a film and bring it back to the United States, because it's a subject which is important also for people in the United States, but with most things in the world you have to make a judgment call about whether if you go and make a film how worthwhile is it going to be. Is it going to be something which hasn't been shown before or are you going to be able to show us a situation in a new way that it hasn't been seen before? Is it something which is better done by a local filmmaker who better understands the situation and speaks the language? I speak Russian fluently. I could go to Russia and make a documentary without working with a translator. I'm not sure which subject I would tackle in Russia right now. Also, Russia is becoming increasingly difficult, because of its internal politics and crackdown on the free press and freedom of speech and Americans are still regarded with some suspicion in many places. So all these things are tough. I mean, I could make a film in the United States, but there are so many people making films in the United States and it's hard to know exactly which issue to approach. I would love to make a documentary film about the situation in Southern Sudan, because all the films that seem to be made here are about people who have fled Sudan and are in the United States, like God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan. Whereas I don't think we've seen that many documentaries that are actually filmed in Sudan about the situation there and that's a bigger challenge and harder to do. That might be something that would be illuminating and worthwhile and not overly redundant. Africa, in general, is a continent which is very far off most people's radar and poorly understood and also extremely diverse and interesting. I have a lot of ideas and it hasn't yet crystallized in my mind which one is the one. Right now I have this time period where I'm going to film festivals and promoting Iraq In Fragments and waiting for it to get picked up by some distributor and while all this stuff is kind of hanging, maybe because all this stuff is sort of hanging and still in the works, my brain really hasn't focused on the next project, but I feel confident that at a certain point I'll start to get this nervous antsy feeling 'why am I not making a new film' and then something will happen in the world and it'll be this inspiration and I'll go and do it.
Q: Well, whatever it is, I look forward to seeing it! Thank you very much for the interview.
A: Thank you.

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