Going to the Movies in Iraq


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Between Iraq and a Hard Place: Episode 48

Hannah and Colleen take a trip around the world and into a Middle Eastern movie theater. Sometimes watching a movie in Iraq is like a short visit to the United States, but other times it's more like visiting a different country… or a different planet where the spoken language is Arabic but the written language is Russian. It's exciting.

Learn more at www.ServantGroup.org! Contact us with comments or questions at hannah@servantgroup.org.

Here are some links to different films we mentioned in the epidsode!

  1. “Turtles Can Fly” – “Despite its fanciful title, Turtles Can Fly leads viewers into a slough of despond, one in which not just hope is strangled but virtually any possibility for simple human kindness.” – Ann Hornaday, Washington Post
  2. “Salaam Dunk” – “Beautifully told both visually and through the girls’ own words, insightful and inspirational, Salaam Dunk is a #1 Must See Festival Film and the #1 Must See Inspirational Film of the Fest.” – Debbie Lynn Elias, Behind the Lens
  3. “Crossing the Dust” – We got some of the details wrong in the podcast with this film. “A road movie set in Iraq in 2003 during the fall of Saddam. Two Kurds are looking for the parents of a five-year-old boy who has been found in the street in tears. His name is Saddam too. At the same time the boy’s parents are looking for him everywhere, worried because of the boy’s name which is now taboo. All the attempts of the two Kurds to get rid of the child fail…”
  4. “Jani Gal” – A stereotypical Kurdish movie full of travel and sadness.
  5. Here’s even more! We’ve seen some of these, but some of the ones we’ve seen aren’t on this list. Maybe they didn’t hit Western news enough to register? Let us know if you find one you love!

And here's a rough transcript! Hannah: Welcome to Between Iraq and a Hard Place. I'm Hannah.

Colleen: And I'm Colleen.

Hannah: And we're going to tell you about our life in Iraq.

Colleen: It's going to be fun.

Hannah: I hope so.

Hannah: Theaters, movie theaters, have been closed for a while.

Colleen: Yeah, I think maybe we're feeling a little nostalgic for something we almost never did.

Hannah: That's true. Now, I'm not a big go-to-the-movies person. The last movie we saw, we went together.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: And we saw 1917.

Colleen: It was incredible. It was distressing.

Hannah: Yes.

Colleen: But also really well done.

Hannah: Definitely a movie you have to be in the theater to really get the full experience on. And I think I think that's why we love movie theaters so much is for the experience.

Colleen: I mean, that's definitely how I viewed movie going in Iraq, certainly.

Hannah: It was always an experience, that's for sure.

Colleen: For sure.

Hannah: I have one piece of interesting trivia I learned, which explained a lot of things to me was that the first full-length Western movie ever shown in Iraqi Kurdistan was Titanic.

Colleen: Oh!

Hannah: Right?

Colleen: That explains so much!

Hannah: And so when I moved there and had never seen Titanic, people were appalled, like, how could I have not seen such a classic movie?

Colleen: And like, "My Heart Will Go On" is a song that you can hear in any grocery store, mall, store anywhere. In Kurdistan you very likely will run into "My Heart Will Go On."

Hannah: Yes, and when I first moved to Iraq, there weren't really movie theaters to go to.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: Like, you could go to a meeting hall and they would show a movie sometimes. But it was like you're sat in a folding chair, maybe in theater seats if it was a nicer venue.

Colleen: But yeah, it was not a venue that was exclusively made for showing movies. They just happened to use the projector to show a movie sometimes.

Hannah: Right. Which is not the way that it is now.

Colleen: No, there are a few movie theaters now and not as many as we often have in United States cities, still.

Hannah: Sure. I guess that's probably true.

Colleen: But there are some.

Hannah: Yeah, I remember when Dohuk got its first movie theater and how excited everybody was.

Colleen: Oh yeah.

Hannah: I went to see many a movie in that theater… we will get to those.

Colleen: Yeah. I also remember the first movie theater that got opened in Suly and it was great.

Hannah: I think that theater in Suly was the first movie theater I went to in Iraq.

Colleen: Really?

Hannah: Yeah. We were down visiting you with Katrina and her family and her oldest daughter and I went to see the first Hunger Games movie.

Colleen: Oh, really?

Hannah: In in the theater in Suly. It was bizarre.

Colleen: Yeah, it's a I mean, it was definitely set up, modeled after the stereotypical American movie theater experience to the point where they brought in, like the pop machines that have the mix carbonation and the syrup thing, which most everywhere else doesn't do in Iraq.

Hannah: You get a bottle or a can.

Colleen: Right. And the the popcorn and the same kinds of American snacks like you walk in there and you feel like you stepped out of Iraq and into the United States.

Hannah: Yes. Except everything is subtitled in Arabic.

Colleen: Right. The first movie, I don't know if it was the first movie I saw there had been probably the second movie I saw there, actually. They were premiering "Prince of Persia" and there was a Kurdish guy who was an extra somewhere in it.

Hannah: Oh.

Colleen: And so he was there and they had all the cameras there. And you had to come by like ticket invite only one of our students was connected.

Hannah: Like a red carpet…

Colleen: Yeah. Red carpet. And it was definitely set up that way. I don't think we quite knew what we were getting ourselves into.

Hannah: Isn't that the way that it always goes!

Colleen: When our student invited us to this premiere of this movie. And we were excited about it. It was great. And there's nothing like that moment near the beginning of the film where it's zooming in on this map of the Middle East and it's like, "In a land far, far away…" And you're like, wait, we're like in the middle of that map

Hannah: It's getting closer to us!

Colleen: Yeah, it's like this is not far, far away. And my roommate, at the time, and I remember leaving that movie and that whole experience and being like the movie was about Persia and the Middle East. But we feel like we've just been to America.

Hannah: Right.

Colleen: It's so strange.

Hannah: Very, very odd. I never went to that kind of premiere. I did go to a Kurdish film premiere because teammates neighbor was like the producer for it. So he invited the token American audience to come and watch it. And it was very formal, like we got dressed up in our best clothes, which was. I think I dressed all in black because all my nicest clothes were black and it was everything, of course was in Kurdish. I feel like they had subtitles in English because I understood more of what was going on than I think I ought to have with my knowledge of Kurdish at the time. I don't really remember the plot of the movie. Aside from that it was very sad.

Colleen: I mean, it might not have had much more of a plot than being very sad.

Hannah: It was pretty linear, like there was war and there was love. And then someone died and someone had to escape.

Colleen: It sounds like, again, every Kurdish movie ever, ever seen.

Hannah: Yeah. I mean, it was a pretty well done movie. I feel like it had something to do with donkeys, but I might just be making that up.

Colleen: There is a famous Kurdish movie about donkeys.

Hannah: OK, this was not that one.

Colleen: OK.

Hannah: This was something else, Anyway, it was it was well done. I mean, not like polished Hollywood quality, but it would have worked for a Western audience, I think. Except that it was all in Kurdish.

Colleen: Well, yeah, I remember seeing, I think two different movies in Kurdish in Iraq. One was also a premiere one of our students mother was an actress in it. And I don't know if it had English or Arabic subtitles. I think it did have English subtitles that didn't make sense. And I remember asking my student afterwards what the movie was about and she didn't know either. But there was a lot of wandering about. There was obviously some smuggling. There was war and running and dying and hiding from soldiers.

Hannah: Which I mean, would be the story that Kurdish people tell that much of their experience.

Colleen: But it certainly was not linear and it did not even follow the same group of characters through this whole thing. I wish I could remember the title of the other movie that we went to that was in Kurdish. It was linear. And it was it was fascinating. It was this whole story about these two, I think Iraqi Arab soldiers who pick up this Kurdish kid who's lost and they spend the whole movie trying to basically following his parents through villages and places to try to connect this kid with his parents. And it was great. And it could have had just the most beautiful, lovely, happy ending.

Hannah: Of course it did not.

Colleen: But in the way of Kurdish films…

Hannah: Death and sadness?

Colleen: Death and Sadness.

Hannah: Yeah, that seems about right. I haven't seen a lot of other Kurdish films, but that's kind of the feeling that I get.

Colleen: Have you ever seen "Turtles Can Fly"?

Hannah: No, that sounds like a Dr. Seuss book, I'm not gonna lie.

Colleen: It does! That was the very first Kurdish movie I ever had experience with. When I first started looking into living in Iraq. I looked at the library to see what stuff they might have had about Kurdistan or Kurdish. And there's this movie that pops up as "Turtles Can Fly" and like about this group of kids. And I'm like, oh, OK. Like and it's in Kurdish and I'll watch it in Kurdish. It'll give me exposure to the language and, you know, it'll be interesting and I'll learn stuff about life there. It is probably the most depressing movie I've ever seen.

Hannah: Yay….

Colleen: And it's it's brutal. It's it's it's so sad. It's… I don't even have words.

Hannah: Like the dog dies sad or like everything is awful sad? Or a little bit of both?

Colleen: Everything is awful.

Hannah: Why would they have a dog? They wouldn't.

Colleen: I mean. The the main plot, the character, the main characters are children, most of whom have lost some limb or body part. Because their job is to deactivate landmines.

Hannah: Yeah, that doesn't sound cheerful.

Colleen: Not even the worst and most difficult part of the movie.

Hannah: Cool. I don't want to talk about this movie anymore anyway.

Colleen: I come to Nashville for my orientation training the very first summer before I've gone to Iraq. And what do they do? But they're like, hey, we found this Kurdish movie and none of us have seen it. And so we're going to watch this movie together as a way to like bond and like, you know, talk about Kurdish things. And I was like, oh, no. Oh, no, really? OK, I don't think any of them knew that I had seen it. Like, I don't think I told them. I didn't want to ruin the plans of this new adventure,

Hannah: This new group of friends.

Colleen: This new group of people. I did. I watched it one more time, actually, a few years after that with another group of people who really wanted to see it because they'd heard about it.

Hannah: So you saw this immensely depressing Kurdish movie three times?

Colleen: Three times.

Hannah: Voluntarily.

Colleen: Voluntarily. I don't recommend it, though, unless you really need a good chance to cry?

Hannah: And just be sad for several days.

Colleen: Uh huh. Yeah, I'm actually kind of sad now thinking about it.

Hannah: I think we've had enough of that for the time being.

Hannah: We interrupt this podcast for a very important message. We need more teachers in Iraq. So if you're listening to this, you must be somewhat interested. Please go to our website and get in contact with me and I can tell you how we can make that happen. Thanks!

Colleen: There are much more entertaining film and movie opportunities.

Hannah: Sure, I mean, there's also that movie that came out about basketball.

Colleen: Oh, yeah, Salaam Dunk. That's super fun.

Hannah: If we're going to recommend a Kurdish-esq movie. It would be that one, right?

Colleen: Well I'm in it!

Hannah: I have never actually seen it.

Colleen: Seriously?

Hannah: Yeah, I think it came out like one of the summers that I was home and I was just kind of like, I'll see it eventually. I never did.

Colleen: It's super fun. They create essentially a narrative out of a documentary style like take on youth basketball between the mostly focused around this college team at the American University and some of the different teams they play against. And so our school and the team that we had, our high school team played their college team. I mean, they all have about the same amount of experience. It's fine. And yeah, so our kids and and I, all pop up in at a couple of times.

Hannah: Colleen, basketball coach.

Colleen: Oh, yeah. No, I'm not I'm not featured in any way. I'm only in the background,

Hannah: A background character?

Colleen: Where I can like I know where I was because I was there.

Hannah: Right. You, you can find you.

Colleen: I can find me. No one else.

Hannah: All right. So that's that's the homework assignment is watch "Salaam Dunk" and see if we can find Colleen.

Colleen: See if you can find me. Since this is a podcast and no one's actually seeing my face anyway, I feel like that could be an additional challenge.

Hannah: I'll find you, Colleen. Not at all creepy.

Colleen: But living in Iraq, watching movies in the cinema was not the only way you watch movies.

Hannah: It's true. The majority of movies that I watched. What's the statute of limitations on buying pirated movies in a different country?

Colleen: I'm not sure that there is one.

Hannah: I'm probably good, right? So most of the movies that I watched were DVDs that you bought from the corner shady DVD seller.

Colleen: Although I'm not sure he or anyone else thinks of them as shady because it's so open there.

Hannah: Like it's not illegal in Kurdistan? So many of my students told me this. Like, oh, no, no, we don't have these laws. It's not illegal. They may or may not have the laws. I don't know. But certainly nobody is getting in trouble for copying DVDs over and over and over and over again.

Colleen: So you buy a DVD inside like a slim plastic sleeve with maybe a paper insert.

Hannah: Right. Like thinner than a Ziploc bag.

Colleen: Yeah. Like something you buy a greeting card in.

Hannah: Yes.

Colleen: And the quality of said film could be anything from perfectly normal in the way it watches. It could be filmed from the back of a theater.

Hannah: So you see, everybody's heads!

Colleen: And it goes in and out of focus. It could switch languages partway through. We watched Madagascar, I think, and partway through it switched to Russian for about ten minutes and then it went back to English.

Hannah: I tried to watch Despicable Me 2. And it starts out in Russian, like even in the American version, it starts out in Russia. And so I was like, wait a minute, did I just get this in Russian? Man! OK, we'll give it five minutes and then, like, it switches over out of Russian, but it switched into Arabic. And I was like, that's not Steve Carell's voice. It was very disappointing.

Colleen: One of them… UP. We watched and all of the words were in English, but all of the writing on the screen was in some other language, maybe Turkish or Russian. It was the Cyrillic alphabet. And so, like, any time, like, they open a book and it's like labeled or something has text on a surface. The text is not English word. I was like, huh?

Hannah: All right. Yeah. The figure that we would buy a DVDs from would let us play through the first five minutes of it to make sure that it was in English and of a fairly decent quality. So that was kind of nice. That also and I was not a video game still am not a video game player, but they also did bootlegged video games and computer software.

Colleen: Yeah, I never got any of that though.

Hannah: No me neither. That felt super sketch. But yeah, I think I watched several Marvel movies that way.

Colleen: I remember one time we were actually up in Dohuk and we went and the guys went out and got some movies and one of the movies they picked up, was just a really terrible movie, I was like, didn't you look up reviews for this? Like, why are we watching this? This is a trash movie, not the quality of the DVD or whatever. Just the movie was terrible. And so we went to go try to look it up and see what it was like, rated and stuff. And it actually hadn't come out in the US yet.

Hannah: Haha!

Colleen: I was like, this is super sketchy!

Hannah: That's how, you know, he's a good DVD guy because he gets them before they come out in theaters. My other favorite was you could get like the compilation DVDs that we're like old Mel Gibson movies or we got Kate Winslet once.

Colleen: Or like all the the chick flicks, you know, and it's like twenty five movies on a DVD.

Hannah: Or children's movies or whatever. And those were always kind of fun because again, a lot of times the menus were not in English. So we would just like pick a movie and hope. And I watched some real depressing Kate Winslet movie that I was like, I don't know the name of this movie, but I hope I never, ever, ever watch it again! And I feel like the name would have told me this is not a movie you want to watch. Or I could have gotten online and like looked at looked it up, but it was in Arabic.

Colleen: I feel like some of those, even if the menu was in English, you didn't always know that it would actually match.

Hannah: Right.

Colleen: The movie that you were clicking to or sometimes it wasn't at the beginning and say like you had to click forward and back through sections to try to find when the beginning happened.

Hannah: And you can you could get TV shows and and those were pretty much the same way.

Colleen: It was like the Russian roulette of movies.

Hannah: Right. Right. And I know eventually several people I knew got the VPNs and and would get Netflix or Amazon Prime or whatever and do streaming. But that was much later.

Colleen: Yeah. When I first lived in Iraq, streaming really wasn't a thing.

Hannah: Not even in the US.

Colleen: Not even in the US. And internet speeds were so slow that you could barely keep up a Skype conversation, let alone stream something. And you couldn't like if you didn't always have good electricity to be able to run your internet or computer or whatever. I remember there were a few different things that we did by my last year. There definitely were downloading some things to play. And like you had to if you wanted to watch a YouTube video, you would…

Hannah: Pre-download it?

Colleen: Set it so that you, you know, you had it hit pause to try to download as much of it as possible, like so that you could actually play it all the way through without pause, pausing it spots.

Hannah: Yeah. Fun times.

Colleen: Oh, yeah.

Hannah: I knew people, too, who would streams live sporting events, which I didn't really understand. I'm not a sports person, admittedly, but like people who wanted to watch the Super Bowl or we went and watched the Final Four games one year.

Colleen: OK. Uh huh.

Hannah: And I remember being like, it's like 3:00 in the morning. I do not care enough about this. I think we ended up staying at that friend's house because my roommate at the time wanted to watch them. And I was like, we'll just go and spend the night with them and you guys can get up whenever you want to. I'm going to keep sleeping because I do not care about basketball. I think I watched some Winter Olympics though that way once. Yeah, but most people just watch whatever came on TV or they got DVDs from the DVD guy. Because it was cheap! Like 50 cents!

Colleen: I mean I watched the Super Bowl… OK, one of the only Super Bowl parties I've ever actually been to was in Iraq. And it was, they were playing it and then the Internet went out or something happened. And so, like then they were watching it like this diagram on the phone with, like, the little pieces moving, like those circles and X's. And so, like then like after a play happened, it would like update and I would tell you what had happened. It was really miserable. They were super stressed about the fact that they were not being able to watch the Superbowl when it was happening.

Hannah: Kurds love movies, though.

Colleen: Yeah, they really like horror!

Hannah: I don't know if that's like the younger generation. But yeah, I was always surprised at the young age at which my students would be like, oh yeah, I watch this like really terrifying horror movie. And I was like, WHY???.

Colleen: Miss, why do I have bad dreams? What movies have you been watching lately? Murder Kill 15. That might be why. Really? Yes. Maybe you should stop watching those for a month and see what happens!

Hannah: And?

Colleen: And it worked.

Hannah: What!!

Colleen: They thought I was a miracle worker.

Hannah: You are. Yeah. Once we finally got a theater in Dohuk. My students, of course, wanted to go watch movies and would invite me to go with them and I'd be like, I'll go watch a movie with you. But we're not watching any horror movies and we're not watching anything rated R.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: And they were like, oh, those are our favorite. And I was like, I know. Why do you think I said that? Like, you want to go watch "The Hunger Games." I'll watch that with you. You want to go watch Disney movies? I'll watch those. I don't think I watched any Marvel movies in the theater. Maybe "Captain America"? Actually…

Colleen: That would be an odd one to watch in Iraq!

Hannah: Yeah, I watched Captain America, Winter Soldier in Iraq.

Colleen: Yeah, there you go.

Hannah: And I remember coming out and being like, that's the most American thing I've done in, like, a year. It was very strange, but it was fun to go to the theaters. And I feel like our students in the summer used it the way that people used to do it here, where it was like the theater is air conditioned.

Colleen: Air conditioning!!!

Hannah: And it's entertaining. And like, you know, you can go sit in a cool, dark environment for a couple hours, in the warm of the day and forget about the rest of the world.

Colleen: Yeah, it was it was good for that. Yeah, it's good for the extra good air conditioning.

Hannah: All our movie theaters were in malls. I know the one in Suly was not in a mall.

Colleen: There was one in one of the malls there. I never went to that one, partly because I had connections and friends at the other one. So. Yeah.

Hannah: Yeah, which I guess really isn't that weird, except that in America, movie theaters came first and malls came later. And so I don't associate a movie theater with a mall.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: It does happen, but I don't know. I was think of them as standalone. So having them in the mall was a new experience for me. And they were I mean, it's not that expensive.

Colleen: I mean, I feel like the prices were comparable to the US, maybe a little cheaper.

Hannah: Yeah. I mean, I don't think I ever spent more than max fifteen dollars. They also have 3D IMAX style theaters. They're not good.

Colleen: I never went to any of those.

Hannah: They have the like. Yeah, 3D showings of things and I well, I don't really love 3D movies, either. But I had friends that would go and be like, it's not that great. Yeah, it's it's a different it's an experience for sure. And it's definitely primarily teenagers or young adults going to movie theaters.

Colleen: Yeah. With I mean, to movie theaters. Yeah. The premiere kind of ones. It's a whole range. So what are you excited to see eventually in a movie theater. Do you have any movies on your bucket list.

Hannah: Haven't really thought about a bucket list upcoming movie.

Colleen: I don't even know what's coming out.

Hannah: I haven't seen Tenet yet. I kind of want to see that. Yeah. Wonder Woman 1984, which I don't think is going to be like, I think by the time theaters open back up, neither of those will be there. But I'm not really paying attention to anything else. But I think it would be good. I think maybe we need to watch more foreign films, Colleen.

Colleen: Really?

Hannah: Yeah. I'm going to I'm going to encourage our listeners to go find a Kurdish movie. Perhaps not "Turtles Can Fly." Perhaps not that one. And maybe like really psych yourself up for I'm going to be sad at the end of this.

Colleen: If it's a Kurdish film. I mean, it's almost for sure. Except for "Salaam Dunk."

Hannah: Yes. Oh, there you go. That's our recommendation. Go watch "Salaam Dunk." Look for Colleen. Let us know where you find her. Send us a screenshot or something.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: Yeah. And of course, as always, let us know what else you want to hear about in life in Iraq. We love hearing from you guys.

Colleen: We do!

Colleen: We'd love to hear from you. You can find us at Servant Group International on Facebook or Instagram, and you should check out our blog and complete transcripts over at ServantGroup.org

Hannah: And it's really helpful for us if you share our podcast or leave a review on whatever platform you listen to this podcast on, it helps us know that people are listening and you can let us know what you want to hear next.

Both: Thanks for listening.

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