LONDON - Every once in a while a project so successfully portrays the universality of human emotion that it is both admirable and timeless. "Open Shutters Iraq" is one such project.
"Open Shutters" began as a series of photographic essays and has since become a documentary film of the same name. Both have grown from a photography workshop for Iraqi women initiated by British photojournalist Eugenie Dolberg, in Damascus in 2006, during one of the most violent periods of the recent Iraqi conflict.
Frustrated by the paucity of news coverage coming from Iraq, Dolberg wanted to find a way for Iraqi women to document the war with more intimacy. She and Irada Zaydan, a professor at the University of Baghdad, chose 12 women from five different Iraqi cities, all of different social, political and religious backgrounds, to participate in the Damascus workshop.
United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the British organization Index on Censorship funded it.
Before the workshop opened, Dolberg asked London-based Iraqi filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi to document the process from beginning to end.
Dolberg and Pachachi and the Iraqi women lived together in a large house in Damascus' old city for the first segment of the workshop. The 12 participants then went back to Iraq to shoot their stories, returning to Syria to edit their work.
Pachachi filmed the women almost 24-hours a day for about two months. She couldn't finish editing the film until late last fall - as she was also in the midst of setting up a film-training center in Baghdad.
The film "Open Shutters Iraq" premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival last December and is presently in the documentary competition at the Gulf Film Festival, which ends on April 15.
"I think this film can have a resonance anywhere" says Pachachi, "because in essence it is about how the base material of trauma and pain and loss can be acknowledged and owned and then turned into a creative work which stands as an affirmation of existence in the face of the destruction and fragmenting of the world."
Pachachi's film introduces the women, among whom Raya, Lujane, Um Mohammed and Antoinette, the project manager, Zaydan and her six-year-old daughter Dima, Dolberg and her translator, as they begin a basic photography class.
Dolberg teaches the women about light and darkness, how to hold a camera and position themselves, how to re-train their eyes "to perceive the world in a completely new way." Once Dolberg has given the women some basic technical skills, she moves on to what she calls her "Life Map." This is when things start to get exciting.
Using writing and photographs glued to a sheet of poster-format-sized paper to pinpoint major events in her life, Dolberg recounts memories, experiences and sentiments about her identity. By revealing her vulnerabilities to the women, a mutual exchange is set in motion. It is now up to these women to work on Life Maps of their own.
Their subsequent presentations provide an astonishingly candid, generous, and often heart-wrenching overview of life in Iraq with one common denominator: War.
The loss and trauma of contemporary Iraqi history is revealed here through personal stories that include death threats, militia killings, bombings and curfews.
Many of the women have divergent views about the war, or the democratic process, but they all patiently listen to each others' shared experiences of the Iran-Iraq war, sanctions, the current violence but also marriages (and divorces), grief, love and happiness.
"We returned to Fallujah. I wish we hadn't," recounts one woman. "The bombing and fighting had been so intense, people couldn't get out to bury their dead. So they buried them in their gardens ..."
"Every day you cross out a name in your address book," says another. "Someone's gone, died, been abducted, lost."
A third woman describes how much she hated a piece of furniture, a buffet, in her home. Ironically, it was "the one thing they [the Americans and the National Guard] didn't burn in our house ... If only they'd burned that!"
For Pachachi, the film addresses the process of shared expression. "In the Middle East, we are in desperate need of the courage to take on and speak about our experience honestly and we need to listen to each other without immediately judging. Perhaps this is a first step to regaining a sense of agency in our lives."
The mood is gloomy in Damascus the day Saddam Hussein is hanged. "We're supposed to be re-building the country on new democratic principles," one woman says. "... We shouldn't have a death penalty. I mean he was finished anyway, why not just let him die in jail? It's like beating a dead body with a shoe."
Pachachi gives the film just the right touch of relief from the intensely intimate and cloistered atmosphere. She shows the women walking around Damascus' streets practicing taking pictures. Everyone is happy to get involved, from the fruit vendors to street kids.
One day, the women travel to the Sayyida Zaynab Mosque south of Damascus, where many of the poorest among the estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria live. Here, they meet and photograph Sunnis and Shiis, some of whom were neighbors in Baghdad. At least in the mosque in Syria, they say, they can "hug each other, eat and talk together."
Dolberg begins to work with the women on subjects and storyboards for their photo essays. One theme that is discussed is fear and surveillance. "A door has become a source of anxiety for us now," says one woman, referring to incursions by American soldiers.
"Keep the camera on you all the time when you're home," advises Dolberg. "The more you shoot, the more you'll understand what you're doing ... but what's difficult is to get the right emotion."
The women's photo essays are affecting.
Um Mohammed, from Basra, has made a visual portrait of her city, with heart-breaking images of desolate parks and cityscapes, and felled palm trees. "It was the city of palm trees," she said. "It was full of them. Now, most of them are gone ... they were a symbol of Basra, the identity of the city."
Antoinette chooses "Motherhood" as her topic. She struggles daily to keep a sense of normalcy for her children. Her black and white portraits are tender and surprisingly professional.
"I started choosing my scenes, thinking about what they expressed ... I chose to show the particular way a mother touches her child. I would move the feelings inside me through the photograph."
Raya decides to photograph Baghdad's historic Mutanabbi Street after a powerful car bomb in 2007 destroys the street made famous for its bookshops and cafes.
"I remember how my feet walked this street. I used to think that my son too would grow up here. We stood among the ashes of the books and the ruins of the street ..."
Dolberg and Pachachi have done more than bring these Iraqi stories to a wider audience. By the end of the film, one is completely absorbed in the women's lives, anxiously waiting to hear more about them.
We learn that most have remained in Iraq and continue to take photographs. One woman, a journalist, has been assassinated. Another has died of cancer. Raya, who hoped she would find the strength to never leave Iraq, has immigrated to Sweden with her son after receiving death threats.