by Ben McGuinness, Peak Associate
Iraqi writer, filmmaker, and researcher Dima Yassine shared a rough cut of her short documentary Once Upon a Day in Tahir to a crowd at SFU Harbour Centre. The screening was hosted by professor Adel Iskandar (School of Communication) and followed by an open discussion.
Before the film, she shared photos of her childhood in Mosul. She hadn’t been home to Iraq in decades, but she decided to book a flight home for September 2019. Just then, a revolution had broken out.
She began to tear up, and paused. She explained that the Iraqi people were standing up against “everything that had tried to break them” after experiencing “bloodbath after bloodbath” of civil wars and governments that were not made for the people.
“It gave me hope. It revived my belonging, which I had lost for 27 years.”
In the end, she never made it to Mosul. She was so enthralled by the protests in Baghdad that her trip was spent there, amongst diverse people occupying the streets and defying authority.
The film is a brief glimpse into these hectic scenes. In the film, she talks and laughs nervously with a group of acquaintances in a quiet side street — all kinds of chaotic noise echoing from the distance. The limited text in the film explains that 700 people were killed during the protests, many by having tear gas cans aimed at their heads by police.
The next scene shows the group making their way to a bustling tunnel full of people. They are trying to set a ladder up against the side, but are interrupted by emergency vehicles, marches of protesters, and a man being dropped off by police. He is gasping for air, having breathed in tear gas.
Referring to the chaos, Yassine says: “What do we do? Inhale and exhale . . . but then we breathe in tear gas.”
Eventually they get the ladder up and her friend begins his mission to spray paint an image to the side of the tunnel. It starts as a man leaping forward — what looks like a goalie. Then the final touch is added, and the eerie image is revealed: It’s a goalie blocking a can of tear gas.
Yassine had spent her trip in Baghdad, much of it filming the events around her. “I [went] to find a grave, to reconcile with my past, but I found life.” After her trip, she needed to share what she had seen somehow because she was “longing to talk about Iraq” and felt disconnected from the tranquility of Vancouver — though she saw a similar struggle in the Wet’suwet’en protests.
Professor Iskandar asked her why she chose to focus on such a brief part of her trip for the film, where her friend sprays graffiti. Yassine explained that the revolution created an “explosion of art” where people felt able to express themselves. She described the streets after the government attempted to impose a curfew as a carnival, comparing it to Khatsahlano Fest.
During the discussion, Yassine had much to say about the Iraqi people, things that our media doesn’t cover: she talked about the ways they have been subjected to the whims of ISIS and other heavy-handed militias, including the failed US intervention; she talked about their resilience without proper government services, like healthcare and education; she talked about how Iraqi women, portrayed in the West as victims, have been the backbone and fortitude of families during these chaotic times — including as vanguards of this revolution.
As Yassine captivated us for over an hour with the stories she had to share, I wondered why more of them weren’t included in the decidedly sparse film. Her account of the Iraqi people’s struggle and strength could easily create a feature-length documentary — although that would be no small undertaking.
I do hope that Once Upon a Day in Tahir will evolve to capture her full story. In any case, it served as a platform to share her perspective of the revolution and an ode to Iraq. In a region where our media mostly covers death and suffering, we should also be recognizing the life and warmth of people.