«I relish being a stranger in a strange land»

MDOC / Modern Times Review spoke with photographer and filmmaker Maythem Ridha on his experiences as an Iraqi in the UK, journey to film and photography, favourite Middle Eastern films, and more.

Maythem Ridha spent his formative years in Iraq before fleeing into exile with his family. He has created award-winning films and photography projects, showcased in major international festivals and cinemas, receiving numerous accolades and prizes. Maythem’s work includes films in English & Arabic for BBC World Service and ART Europe. He wrote Iraqi Tales during his studies at the University of Oxford and the National Film & Television School (UK). Notable films from this collection are Drifting on the Wind and Al-Baghdadi.

His photographic work, such as Al-Intithar, Interface, and My Camera in Exile, has been published and exhibited in solo and joint shows. Maythem is the recipient of the Al Hambra Award for Excellence in the Arts. He works on diverse international projects, conducts workshops and masterclasses, and his work was exhibited at the Iraqi Cultural Centre in the UK. He authored the photo book Beyond Moments: Morocco. Currently, Maythem is working on new film and photography projects, including 40 Years of Silence and Tear Maker, set against the backdrop of the Iraqi desert.

On 4 August, Maythem Ridha will take the MDOC – Melgaço Documentary Film Festival stage with insights into his film and photography projects in the challenging landscapes of the Middle East and North Africa. With this special masterclass imminent, Modern Times Review spoke with Maythem Ridha on his experiences as an Iraqi in the UK, journey to film and photography, favourite Middle Eastern films, and more.

40 Years of Silence Maythem Ridha
40 Years of Silence,a film by Maythem Ridha

Can you give us a background of your journey to photography and filmmaking? Was this an interest as a young man? Or, what other motivations pushed you to the field?

It started in Baghdad when I was about 5 or 6 years old, and my uncle Safaa (who, along with two of his brothers, were sadly executed by Saddam) would always walk around with two cameras on him. One loaded with B&W and the other with colour film. For the next few years, I would see him pose and photograph people at all the family trips and events, and he would occasionally let me play with his cameras. I don’t think I photographed anything at the time as he never gave me film in the camera. But I loved framing isolated elements of the world around me through the viewfinder. I still find it a magical process. Even today, I prefer shooting film and photography through a viewfinder to working with a monitor.

Even today, I prefer shooting film and photography through a viewfinder to working with a monitor.

You are of Iraqi origin but currently living in the UK as a result of exile. When did this move take place? What factors caused you to make this move? How has the move informed your visual art?

My parents were academics, and fortunately, after Saddam took power in 1979, my father was offered an opportunity to do his PhD at Southampton University. Aged 9, I arrived in the UK speaking no English. Images and photographs became my method of understanding the world around me and communicating with others.

I used to cut out photographs from magazines and stick them into scrapbooks. I would write in Arabic imagined stories of the people in the photos. These sometimes became very elaborate stories as I had to create some extraordinary narrative to connect them to the next random and unrelated photograph in the scrapbook. So, that was an excellent exercise for me in visual storytelling.

Later after buying my first camera, I would take photographs during school theatre dress rehearsals and then run home. I turned my family’s only bathroom into a makeshift darkroom, and my family had to painfully endure waiting to use the toilet whilst I developed and printed the photos. I would then have the photos displayed at school for the main performance, and the parents would buy photos of their child as «stars». Photography became a hobby that I loved and gave me a chance to earn some extra pocket money from selling the prints.

This aspect was important as we could not return to Iraq after my father’s brother was executed. Forced to become exiles, my father was not allowed to work in the UK, so it was a big financial struggle for the family, and photography was a good way to make a little bit of extra pocket money from something I loved.

Al-Baghdadi Maythem Ridha
Al-Baghdadi, a film by Maythem Ridha

How has your experience as a Middle Eastern man living in the UK under the circumstances why you moved? You have built a nice career in the UK and collaborated with various respected institutions. Do you find the infrastructure and attitude in the country to be generally open to you and those with similar backgrounds?

In the 1980s UK, there was a great deal of racism, both blatant and subtle. I would have some racial slur hurled at me nearly daily and sometimes physically assaulted. Nowadays, I think people have become aware of the benefits of having foreigners in the UK or perhaps racism has become more subtle as racial slurs have become less acceptable. But it is still there, in subtext, sometimes.

In terms of career development, I have been really lucky. At one of my photographic exhibitions when I was 20 years old, I was approached by a filmmaker who suggested that my work lends itself to filmmaking as it was always about characters and stories and often in multi-image sequences with a clear narrative structure. It was then that I started seriously experimenting with making films as a tool for my creative outlet. I studied film and photography part-time while working for various production companies during my free time to gain experience and make connections.

Through these connections, I was able to find collaborators and funding for future projects and also find my first job as a director. I was fortunate that through one of these connections, who was involved in setting up the first Arabic satellite channel MBC that I had my first paid directing job.

I went on to work with various broadcasters after that, including the BBC, before being headhunted for the role of Senior Writer, Director and Producer to launch a new platform of channels for Viacom, Showtime Middle East (Now OSN).

In 1996 I formed my production company, 7th Heaven Studios and received my first big production contract from ART Europe. I went on to make documentaries for a few years for them and others, providing me with the base to develop my projects.

With my passion projects, trying to tell our story from our perspective was harder, but it felt like the only authentic and honourable thing to do. I found that Western commissions sometimes want to help you with projects, but it has to be told from their perspective and not our own. Often wanting to tell stories that would reinforce their own bias. This was, to a certain extent, still problematic despite all the talk of accessibility and diversity in the industry. It still has that post-colonial flavour.

I would have some racial slur hurled at me nearly daily and sometimes physically assaulted.

Working in both film and photography, how does one influence the other? How do they differ in terms of stylistic and narrative approaches?

That’s a very interesting question. I think my mind was formed to work as a photographer. So my stories often start with a single powerful image that haunts me. A character is set against a background. Then from that comes a story. Many projects start as photographic projects and sometimes, many years later, become films.

For example, my Iraqi Tales work on Al-Intihar and Al-Nikash photographic projects, where I met many other exiled Iraqis and heard their stories, became a series of stories that I developed for film at the University of Oxford and subsequently at the National Film & Television SchoolUK. From that came Drifting on the Wind, a film about an exile returning to Iraq as Saddam’s regime falls.

Later Al Baghdadi was a film I made about my experience of arriving in the UK and not speaking English. That started as a single image in my mind of a boy with a remote control aeroplane. The look of concentration and joy on his face made that picture into a story for me.

In 2018, a year before we shot Ali and His Miracle Sheep, I was shooting an ongoing film and photography project called Tear Maker in Iraq. I came across many people leading sheep to sacrifice for the souls of their deceased relatives. I photographed them, and those images haunted me. I came across children who had lost fathers in the battles against ISIS. They were simple farmers who had carried nothing sharper than a spade and were brutally killed fighting against well-trained terrorists… Leaving orphaned children and another traumatised generation of Iraqis from the previous decades of tyranny and war. I wanted to tell their story and our collective story as Iraqis. I had already decided that in order to tell more powerful stories in Iraq, I needed to train as a psychotherapist. I became particularly interested in working with childhood trauma. (which interestingly is also the subject of my next feature-length hybrid film called 40 Years of Silence).

At its premiere screening, Ali and His Miracle Sheep won the Best Film Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest UK competition 2021 and went on to be selected at over 40 major international film festivals and win over 20 awards and distinctions. This has helped me to work on my new projects and move them forward.

The same with photographs from My Camera in Exiles and Other Stories. They are becoming a series of stories for film about my Arab identity, childhood trauma, and the challenges we face today, including climate change. This has become two new projects, Amana and Amal, that I am working on now.

Photography is a much harder discipline for me because I have to say something in fewer frames. With film, there is the luxury of having many frames to tell a story. So photography makes me a more disciplined filmmaker.

My Camera in Exiles and Other Stories Maythem Ridha
My Camera in Exiles and Other Stories; c. Maythem Ridha

You also describe your visual techniques as inspired by Middle and Far Eastern poetry. How? What are the foundations of such poetry, and how do they translate visually?

A good film often tells a deeper story that goes beyond the surface, touching the core of our being and maybe creating some kind of healing, catharsis or change. Perhaps something that challenges us and enables us to re-evaluate what it means to be human today.

As a young boy in Iraq and Algeria, I was very interested in poetry. We were all encouraged to write poetry, and I enjoyed it. Later I became interested in Omar Khayam’s use of quatrains and the Sufi poets like Rumi and Ibn Arabi and even the haiku poetry of Japan.

I would listen to the poetry of Ahmed Rami, who wrote many songs for Umm Kulthum, a legendary singer in the Middle East and inspired musicians like Bob Dylan, Maria Callas and Robert Plant.

I think the poem’s use of metaphor and simile inspires my film work as I search deep and wide for the visual metaphor and the visual simile as juxtapositions of one thing and another. The poem’s rhythm and rhyme relate to the rhythm of the cut and visual sequencing in the film.

More important, though, is poetry’s use of symbolism and allegory.

I was brought up in Baghdad being told fables by my grandmother. These were stories with multi-layers of meaning. That kind of worked on one level or another, regardless of age. But as we grow, our understanding of the fable changes. This way of telling stories is how I was brought up and what inspires me today.

The way that fables deal with reality and facts is quite interesting. The accountant’s truth is told in numbers. It is empirically accurate on an earthly level but doesn’t interest me that much except when it can somehow allude to a higher poetic truth. The poet’s truth is told in allegory, symbolism, metaphor and simile—an eternal truth bordering on the spiritual.

Take as an example Ali and His Miracle Sheep. Ali is an allegory and a metaphor for the reality of Iraq and the collective trauma of the Iraqi people. On a symbolic level, Ali being a mute symbolises the Iraqi people as having lost our voice.

Iraq, historically an important nation for centuries, is a country that today has clearly lost its voice on the world stage… like Ali, it has lost it due to the trauma of decades of war and conflict, and like Ali, only a miracle will help it to speak again.

On another level, Ali being mute is a useful creative tool for me as an artist. Having no voice meant I would need to utilise a visual language to say what I want. This is a gift that helped to tell a visual story.

I discovered this way of working in the previous Iraqi Tales project. Al-Baghdadi, where my main character, also called Ali, arrives in England unable to speak English. That gave me a chance to craft a visual story.

A good film often tells a deeper story that goes beyond the surface, touching the core of our being and maybe creating some kind of healing, catharsis or change.

I notice in your photography accessible online that though you work in some volatile places, there is rarely imagery of overt war and conflict. Rather, there is more focus on individuals and communities. Is this a conscious decision on your part not to focus your gaze on physical violence?

Yes, so much of my world as an Iraqi and Arab is overtly covered by the news as violent conflict and war. That is all we see. For me, I am more interested in ordinary people. My camera is always turned away from the wars and conflicts, and towards the subject it affects. It is instinctive. I’m interested in the ordinary person’s story under extreme and extraordinary circumstances. Whilst always present, these extraordinary violent situations are in the background and always out of focus.

When we were shooting Ali and His Miracle Sheep, there were violent protests and people being killed around the corner from where I was, but we did not film any of it. Because it did not serve the story I was telling, a simple story about a boy and his sheep (at least on the surface level).

Ali and His Miracle Sheep Maythem Ridha
Ali and His Miracle Sheep , a film by Maythem Ridha

You also mention that your photography frequently comes from having a camera in hand and getting lost in the street. Let’s define this here as «street photography.» Can you take us through a hypothetical frame and shoot in this space? Meaning what sort of things immediately ran your attention when shooting on the street? How d you technically approach it? Or anything you would like to describe about your approach to shooting on the street?

I was shooting street photography long before I knew what «Street Photography» meant and before it became a fad. It started when I was working in the Middle East directing various film productions, where I sometimes would have over a hundred people working on set or on location. This leaves me with very little time to myself. Often in my lunch breaks and at weekends, I would take my camera and just walk around in some random direction, to intentionally get ‘lost in the city’ and discover what fascinates me. I love finding myself in different locations. I love being a traveller. I relish being a stranger in a strange land and capturing these moments with my camera, often discretely shooting from the hip.

What I find interesting about street photography is the process of setting out and not knowing what I will find. This is very different from shooting my other work, where every variable has been meticulously planned. I walk around with my camera and let the world interact with me. I watch, wait and then shoot when all the elements come together in some visual equilibrium.

Often after the first few observational street shots, I would engage with the person I was photographing. I would talk to them and get to know them a little better. Then I might shoot more constructed, more directed environmental portraits.

It is the same way I work with my film projects. They are partly observational and partly constructed.

When I return to the UK, after being away filming for a long time, I find myself no longer desensitised to my environment in England. I start seeing things afresh and comparing/contrasting with what I saw in the Middle East. For example, the women in their veils, how just changing the location affects the meaning of that potent symbol (send Steve the image reference for this).

I like to work in that space between the observational and the constructed. In photography, it is between street and environmental portraits, similarly in film.

Coming from a very traditional documentary background with broadcasters such as the BBC, I went on to the National Film and Television School and discovered different ways of working with drama.

I became drawn to combining what I loved from drama and documentary by using a hybrid style to make films that can utilise any form and visual vocabulary that fits the story I want to tell.

I’m applying this way of working to the subjects that interest me, including how stories, myths, and collective memory can shape who we are. Also, I’m experimenting with how cinema and psychotherapy can work together. Both of these are topics in my upcoming film, 40 Years of Silence.

Often in my lunch breaks and at weekends, I would take my camera and just walk around in some random direction, to intentionally get ‘lost in the city’ and discover what fascinates me.

Finally, what are some seminal films or filmmakers that kickstarted your interest or created a lasting interest in the field for you?

My earliest memories of cinema that affected me were films like The Battle for Algiers. I first watched this as a child with my father when he was teaching physics at the University of Algiers, and we lived and travelled around North Africa for a couple of years.

Later when I started studying film, I became interested in the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealists. Still, as I developed as a filmmaker and wanted to tell stories closer to my own identity, I became more influenced by cinema from the East, cinema from China, Korea, Japan and especially Iranian cinema and the works of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Mahmalbahf and Jafar Panahi.

I was fortunate to attend some of Abbas Kirostami’s lectures and masterclasses in London. Also, I attended his photographic exhibition at the V&A, where I talked to him about his filmmaking process and the challenges I was facing with Iraqi Tales. I spoke to him in-depth about some of the methodologies I wanted to use, and he gently walked me through his work, sharing insight into how he achieved similar results with films like Where is the Friends Home, Ten and Homework.

A short time later, I bumped into him while presenting a project at Cannes (where he was the head of the jury that year). He greeted me, and we exchanged some pleasantries. I believe in signs, and for me, it was a sign from the heavens to continue on the path Abbas pointed me towards.

By teaching me to select the performer to play himself, put him in a familiar world, ask him to do scenes that he could understand, and then for me to step away onto the sideline, as a football coach would, without interfering with the player. Abbas Kiarostami took me to a place where the world of fact and the world of fiction become one, intertwined into a single cinema that can depict the more complex layers of reality, and that can contain a notable degree of ambiguity, an unusual mixture of simplicity and complexity, and a carefully balanced mix of documentary and fictional elements. This is, in essence, what I wanted to explore with Ali and His Miracle Sheep and to continue with that process with my current projects.

Industry news

Before the fall

RUSSIA How Yevgeny Prigozhin's mercenary army, Wagner, grew to become a major tool in Russian foreign policy – murdering its way across Africa and Ukraine.

Space oddity

SCIENCE: Unraveling NASA's mission to Mars and the psychological toll it entails in a poignant reflection on space travel and human spirit.

Dead humans are also humans

DEATH: When the Mediterranean rejects the nameless, who restores their dignity?

Between Revolutions: «I am more fascinated by the archival material than the present»

REVOLUTION: We joined film director Vlad Petri under a fig tree in Skopje as he reflects on the stories of women's resilience and revolution in his film Between Revolutions.

Report: Baltic Sea Docs 2023

BALTIC SEA DOCS: Modern Times Review looks back at the panels, screenings, and presentations that made up the 2023 Baltic Sea Forum for Documentaries.

Report: B2B Doc Documentary Industry Days 2023

B2B Doc: Modern Times Review looks back at the week of panels and presentations that made up the 2023 B2B Doc Documentary Industry Days programme.

Chile 76: The aftermath of a broken mirror

GEOPOLITICS: Delving deep into the murky world of geopolitical machinations where, from Iran to Chile, the US/UK influence cannot be understated.

Utopias of community

FUTURE: Are we progressing towards an international society that looks after those left out of the conventional job market – and, with wisdom, transitions today's military industry towards civilian duties? It's conceivable that the new BRICS might pave a path away from today's Western ideology.
- Advertisement -spot_img

You might also likeRELATED
Recommended to you