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"We are the forgotten generation in Iraq"

IRAQ / In Iraq, young people trust neither the politicians nor the parties. MODERN TIMES has met the director and producer of the film Baghdad on Fire, which deals with the mobilization of the youth fighting for change in the bad governance of the country's leaders. Karrar Al-Azzawi says the following about the US invasion in 2003: "They brought 'democracy', but we got only chaos and corruption – with politicians who only wanted to steal. The religious leaders were also involved in this."


20 years have passed since the US-led invasion Iraq in 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein. In October 2022, thousands of young men and women gathered in al-Tahrir Square in central Baghdad to mark the third anniversary of the largest youth demonstration in Iraq's history, which took place in 2019. They demonstrated against chaos, corruption and conflicts that followed in the wake of the American invasion.

MODERN TIMES has met the film director Karrar Al-Azzawi (and his producer Jørgen Lorentzen, see subcase), who were born in Baghdad, but ended up in Norway as a refugee and asylum seeker. During his five years in the asylum process, he made the short film Just Crumbs (2016) and organized the international photo exhibition Forgotten, which was shown in several European countries with the aim of raising awareness of the refugee situation in the world.

I Milano, where his first documentary feature film, Bagdad on Fire, was screened at the Visioni dal Mondo festival, we sat down to discuss the attempted revolution or changes in Iraq. What was his motivation for making the film?

“I took part in these demonstrations in 2014 and 2015. I am from Baghdad. I have been involved in organizing and demonstrating. Since then I have wanted to show and tell what is happening. And in 2019 began demonstrationone more. I had to tell the story of my generation. We are the forgotten one generationone in Iraq, the youth, and I especially wanted to tell it from the Iraqi women's perspective."

"Then I had to leave. I had no other choice.”

Why did he have to flee his country? "I had to flee Iraq in 2016. Partly because I participated in the demonstrations in 2015, but also because I discussed various topics with youth and made them aware of what it means to be free – rather than being led by religious leaders and others. It created more than one problem for me, so I was threatened by the militia. Then I had to leave. I had no other choice.”

The female protagonist

Azzawi directed Bagdad on Fire (see about the demonstrations and the attempt revolution. One of the protesters was 19 years old Fadil arrived, who is the film's main character. She calls herself a protester and a revolutionary. The young Iraqi woman was born in Baghdad in 2000. When asked what she wants from the revolution, she replies: "My homeland!"

The film follows Tiba's transformation after being exposed to forced marriage and abuse to become a young woman who fights for her rights. She wants to study and have an independent job, fight for democracy and for her generation to be together in a different way than her parents. As one of the leaders of the demonstrations in 2019, Tiba chooses to continue the fight for freedom, a new Iraq and a better future – even though she is traumatized and depressed.

Why chose Azzawi a female protagonist? we ask. “I chose a female protagonist in my film because Iraqi women, Muslim and Arab women, are misrepresented in the media in general. Because when you think of Iraqi women, you think of her, you know, wearing black, hiding at home, without a voice, without rights, without choices, without anything. But it's actually the opposite, even if you also have this. There are so many women fighting for their rights now. I wanted to show that.”

Azzawi adds: “My dream is to see Iraqi women and men free and liberated. Where everyone has freedom of expression and the same opportunities. Tiba and I share the same dream. We want to see an Iraq free of religious control and militia groups. Her transformation from abused girl to one of the leaders in youth movementn is very inspiring. Tiba and I also have the same childhood. When the US invaded our homeland, Iraq, she was three years old, I was nine.

When I was searching for the main character for my film in 2019, I was looking for a strong Iraqi woman who was in the youth demonstrations and wanted to create change in Iraq. I wanted to tell the story from the woman's perspective – but it was not easy to find an Iraqi woman who agreed to be filmed. When I first met Tiba, I was sure I had found my character. With Tiba's story, I found something very similar to the lives of many Iraqi women."

One might wonder what kind Equality it is in Iraq compared to, for example, Norway, where Azzawi has now established himself: "Before, in the 70s, Iraq was completely different when it came to equality between women and men, because women were in a position, and they were quite equal . But then Saddam Hussein came, and then this changed. After the US invasion, you had to start from scratch."

The background

As Tiba says in the film, the young people saw each other more as strangers before, but the fight brought them together. But demonstrating was a danger in Baghdad: “Every day we face a massacre. We die!” Still, she believes there is hope.

Azzawi explains: “In this society, which prevents the mixing of the sexes, young men and women stood side by side in the struggle for freedom and democratic change. This generation had had enough of militias, corrupt politicians and foreign interference. They wanted Iraq to belong to them.”

In 2019, Tiba joined his friends Yousif and Khader and thousands of other young people in the square to demonstrate. The three friends started a legeteam and spent days and nights together in their tent in Tahrir Square. In the film, we see that they laugh, cry, are terrified and expose themselves to danger, and feel the youth's desire for change – and we see the strength of the Iraqi women.

But what happened in the wake of the US invasion in 2003? We ask Azzawi: “Iraq lost so much. If you look at the situation in Iraq before 2003, we had the dictator Saddam Hussein. But after 2003 there was chaos because of the American the invasion. They destroyed all institutions and much else. We had to start all over again. They brought 'democracy', but all we got was chaos and corruption – politicians who only wanted to steal. The religious leaders were also involved in this. We think they just wanted it all to themselves. These give nothing to us, the Iraqi people. And after 2003 we got borgerkrig, conflicts between different sects and then al Qaeda, as well as many car bombs everywhere. Then came ISIS. I would say the main problem was the invasion. This is where it all began.”

"The peaceful young people just sing, wave the Iraqi flag, sit together, discuss, play music, write poems. The authorities are not used to it. They are so afraid of this.”


Usually the term 'revolution' is something of the past or idealists – today people would rather experience reforms. But the young people in Iraq are determined, they really want to change their homeland. Considering that young people make up 70 percent of the population, it is perhaps not such a naive ambition. We ask Azzawi: “I think the revolution is a response from dreamers. But I believe that revolutions have an effect and that it can change, not in one or two years, or maybe ten years. It takes time, but I think it is very necessary. We need these dreammore. I don't think we are naive. We want to create creative changes. But step by step.

People are very aware now, especially the youth, they don't want this regimet longer. But of course we still have a long way to go to bring about a change, to throw out the regime. But even the militia are now afraid to say personally that they are a militia. Not like before, when they were proud of it.”

Karrar Al-Azzawi. Foto: Truls Lie

What about non-violenceproper protests? Will they have any effect on the authorities, compared to the more violent ones? "The dictators and this type of government are more afraid of peaceful demonstrations and revolution than of weapons and violence. They know how to use violence and how to kill people. But they don't know how to resist us. The peaceful young people just sing, wave the Iraqi flag, sit together, discuss, play music and write poems. The authorities are not used to it. They are so afraid of it.”

“If you look at what happened during the US invasion of Iraq, we don't want this kind of interference. I think it is better to leave us alone.”

Iraq has not been alone in protesting against governments in the Middle East and Africa over the last decade in this century. Protests or approaches to revolution have occurred in Egypt (the Arab Spring of 2011), Tunisia, Syria and more recently with the women's movement in Iran. But in 2019, the revolution in Iraq was interrupted by covid-19. Tiba was in al-Tahrir Square from October until covid-19 struck in April. But why was 2019 a far bigger event? "During the Arab Spring, we also had demonstrations in Iraq, and I was part of them. We have had many different demonstrations in the past. And we build up each time we demonstrate, or as we like to call it, develop. It gets bigger and bigger. The demonstrations in 2013–14 were much smaller than those in 2019. Hopefully they will be even bigger in 1–2 years, maybe soon.”

What about negotiations with the authorities? “Well, in Iraq we have tried to talk to the authorities and we have had some dialogues. We have had discussions and meetings with the various governments we have had. But they never followed through on anything they had promised us."

Is there a way forward to get representation Parliament? "There is a very small proportion of the Iraqi people who actually vote. At the last two elections, it was below 40 percent. We do not trust the politicians or the parties. But in connection with the demonstrations, some young people have actually established three new parties. They now have seats in parliament.”

US invasion

Another topic is how foreign powers can influence a country to make changes – if they cannot do it themselves. Even though the protesters in the film say no to foreign powers, I ask if Azzawi believes that help can come from outside: "It is very sensitive to talk about foreign influence on our country. It can be good, and it can be bad. If you look at what happened below USAs invasion of Iraq, we do not want this kind of interference. It ruined everything. We do not want foreign support for the militias or the regime in Iraq. I think it's better to leave us alone – but maybe support the youth so that we can change from within."

What about the regime and how they cooperate with foreign politicians? “During the demonstrations, the prime minister gave the police and the military permission to kill the demonstrators. At the same time, he had a meeting with many foreign leaders, for example Erna Solberg, who at the time was prime minister in Norway – while we were being killed in the streets."

We talk about democracy, since the West has more problems with cynical selfishness and commercialism. What kind of democracy do the Iraqi youth want, we ask. "We will develop an understanding of our own democracy, not import it from outside, although we will draw inspiration from the West. The South is different. For example, we do not want capitalism. We want more solidarity and more people to be equal. We don't want to just copy the West, because then we will have nothing left of our identity, our history. Remember that Iraq was the first civilization in the world, with a rich history – also with the first established laws in the world."

We ask Azzawi what frihet means to him. "For me it is frihet to be able to do almost anything one wants without harming other people. Being able to speak, use your voice, raise your voice. To just be.”
Not having two cars, we reply, and he shakes his head: "No, it's the opposite. Freedom is also much more than freedom of speech. What about the freedom to get an education, regardless of gender?"

Is there a limit to how many of those killed should be shown in such a documentary?

Movies and violence

Film is a medium that can influence people. But what about the amount of violence that can or should be used in a film – like during the demonstrations in 2019, where according to Azzawi around 700 people were killed? Is there a limit to how many of the dead should be shown in such a documentary before people turn around, numbed by blood and suffering? Bagdad on Fire shows only two people who stay Right: “I don't think it's a question of how many killed we show. I think it's about how we show it. Because this is how you think of the one who is killed at the end of the film – you have been involved with him and have become 'well acquainted' with him. He is one of the three main characters. I think he represents the 700 who were killed, because it's not a question of how many are killed, but of how you film."

As a director, Azzawi rather directs his attention to his friends' grief: "Exactly. Grief, and you see the people around the person killed, how they are affected by it, and you hear the reflections. You get numb if you see too many kills – so what? Then we don't have room for anything else. In the film, I also tried to show that the revolution is much more – not just the front line, such as clashes with the police and violence. There are also beautiful moments. It is also a wonderful community. There are also happy moments. And there is romance. There is love.”


The gender question

Norwegian Jørgen Lorentzen and the company Integral Film (which he owns together with Nefise Özkal Lorentzen) is the producer behind it Bagdad on Fire. He is a former journalist and professor of gender studies at the University of Oslo and has produced a total of 17 films.

Jørgen Lorentzen. Photo: Truls Lie

Since Lorentzen has worked with gender issues, we ask him about the choice of a female revolutionary as the main character in this film – and whether Iraq has a typical 'masculine' problem? "The problem is the oppression of women, which is connected to the fact that women have problems being respected. But also the perspective men have to process their feelings and be open about their own vulnerability – which is often difficult. Although a book called The Arab Man, it is difficult to talk about the Arab man as anything other than masculine. Many countries in the world, including the Arab world and the Middle East, have major problems with their masculinity. This can lead to formal masochism if one does not accept one's own pain or suffering."

The gender issue has been developed in the production of the film: "The gender issue is an important part of the film, and it concerns me because I have always fought for democracy, freedom of expression and human rights. When I was introduced to the project by Azzawi, I also found out how little I know about what has happened in Iraq in recent years."

What about the film's afterlife? “First, emotions are a very important part of humanity. And when you want to draw the audience into the film, you have to touch their emotions. That is precisely the way you can identify with the people there and feel afterwards that you want to support these young people further in their fight for democracy. It's also a good film to use as teaching material in upper secondary schools to get engaged discussions going."


Truls Lie
Truls Liehttp: /
Editor-in-chief in MODERN TIMES. See previous articles by Lie i Le Monde diplomatique (2003–2013) and Morgenbladet (1993-2003) See also part video work by Lie here.

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