The Deminer film release – Interview with director Hogir Hirori – words Paul Risker

Winner of the Special Jury Award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam 2017, director Hogir Hirori and co-director Shinwar Kamal’s The Deminer begins its account after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Fakhir, a father of eight and Major in the Iraq armed forces undertakes a personal mission to disarm the thousands of mines laid across Mosul. Via home movie footage shot by his fellow troops and discovered by Fakhir’s son years later, the archival footage shows how he was able to disarm thousands of mines with just a simple knife and a pair of wire clippers.

The Deminer is a story of conviction through Fakhir’s selfless fear for the lives of innocent people that the mines prey upon. Born in the same town of Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan, Hirori was forced to flee his home in 1999 and now lives in Stockholm, Sweden where he runs his own production company. His previous documentary The Girl Who Saved My Life saw the filmmaker travel back to his homeland in 2014 to document the refugee crisis as 1.4 million fled ISIS. Both films reveal a filmmaker looking to the consequences of violence and chaos, and the human suffering that is a result, or in The Deminer the threat to innocent lives that troubles Fakhir.

Ahead of the UK release, Hirori spoke with Flux about the challenges of bringing the story to the screen, the intimacy of cinema towards its subject, and his optimism amidst cause for cynicism.

 

Why documentary filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

I am a very curious person and love to hear and tell stories about other people’s lives. Documentary filmmaking allows me to go deeper into what has happened, and is still happening. It is a way for me to convey the message that I want to get across and I have been working in television since 2006. I made my first long documentary in 2014 when ISIS attacked the Kurdish areas in Iraq and millions of people were fleeing the area. What was happening at that time shocked me deeply, and I wanted to convey it to the rest of the world in my documentary The Girl Who Saved My Life.

What compelled you to tell the story of this one individual and why now?

I chose to tell the story of Colonel Fakhir because he was a well-known person for me and other Kurds in the area. We come from the same place, Duhok, and Fakhir was a special person for me. He was doing what no one else would do by constantly risking his life to save others, without differentiating between nationality or religion. He was helping everyone regardless of whether they were Kurds, Arab, Muslim or Christian. Even though demining may be a dark and scary subject, I still feel that there is a lot of love and hope in my film that I hope the audience feels as well. What Colonel Fakhir was doing is a great example that it is possible to help others, regardless of situation and abilities, and that we need to feel more love and less hate towards one another.

One of the challenges documentary filmmakers have spoken to me about is the hours of footage you have to work through to begin constructing the film. Can you discuss the process, and was it a case of finding the story, or did you have an idea of the film you were trying to make?

We ended up with 83 hours of footage and we made 87 versions of the film before producing the final version. We had shot a lot of material ourselves and while editing we found more and more of the archival material from the early years. I also spoke to Fakhir´s friends and colleagues a lot, and in the end we also found the briefcase that we had been looking for, for a very long time. It had about 45–50 hours of footage that Fakhir and his assistants had shot during the time that they were in Mosul between 2003-2008. The process became more and more complex, especially after we found the briefcase, but it also clarified a lot of things, and we had a clear goal from the beginning that evolved during the time we were working on the film.
But thanks to the fact that we had a lot of film material from 2003-2017, we were able to pick all those scenes that are in the movie. No scene is the same, even though all the scenes are about demining. To me it was very important to incorporate the material into a coherent movie that could reach a wide audience. I admired Fakhir as a person and his power to save innocent people, and I wanted to make a film that honoured him while correctly portraying the dangerous reality of the situation.

Cinema has the strength of presence to counter the perspective of the world that is cultivated by the mainstream news media. Is the ability of documentaries such as The Deminer to counteract this rhetoric, the source of cinemas importance in creating a more expansive and considered discussion or understanding?

In the news people become just numbers and as viewers you feel distanced, as if you are hearing the same story again and again. It goes in one ear and out the other. You never get the opportunity to get close to a character or the actual person as you can in a documentary. There is a difference between being aware of the facts and actually realising the implications they have, and feeling something toward a subject. I don´t need to tell the audience that there are mines all over Iraq, but I can make people see it and feel it through the power of film.

There is nothing new being said in my film; most of the facts people already know. I am just giving the facts a face and in that way I am transforming people´s simple awareness to deeper insight and effect. For me, this is the real meaning of art and film: to reveal and bring forward the obvious; to make people see the big global issues from a different perspective. The truth is not by definition reality, just as imagination doesn´t always have to be untrue. Documentary filmmaking belongs somewhere in between and oscillates around this central point. It is not about reducing reality to something clearly visible and bluntly obvious, but about making visible the more obscure and hidden truths.

In a world rife with division, tension and xenophobia of other cultures, the emotional connection one forms with Fakhir by the film´s conclusion attests to the importance of cinema as a means to create connections through sharing stories.  

One of the great challenges we faced during the film process was how to avoid making the film political. Since there are so many groups and nationalities in the area, we chose to focus on what Colonel Fakhir was fighting FOR – helping others without differentiating between people based on religion or nationality.

Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the filmmaking process?

The film and the protagonist Fakhir have effected my life in many ways. I have started to value life much more now than before; to appreciate what I have. I try to listen more to others, and I never want to lose hope for humanity, even though much of the time I know that the key leaders of the different countries and groups are much more interested in oil, money and power than the fate of the people effected by the war they are creating.

The Deminer in cinemas and On Demand now courtesy of Dogwoof. The film screens at select cinemas up until 1 June with a ‘Picturehouse Discover Tuesdays’ on 15 May 2018, where it will screen at Picturehouse cinemas around the UK. For more information visit: https://dogwoof.com/thedeminer/

The Deminer film release – Interview with director Hogir Hirori – words Paul Risker

 

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