Sahim Omar Kalifa's main problem while at Sint-Lukas Film Academy in Brussels was having too many ideas, particularly when it came to his graduation project. 'I have too much to say, and that's not a good thing when it comes to shorts.’ Text Ian Mundell

Land of the HeroesHe had to choose, however, and decided to film the story of an Iraqi family living illegally in the Flemish city of Leuven, whose younger members get involved in crime and other dark deeds. Called Nan, it won a VAF Wildcard award in 2008.

Kalifa himself is from Iraqi Kurdistan. Born in 1980, he stayed behind to finish his studies when his parents and younger siblings left Iraq in 1996. Although he had taken photographs and made video films as a hobby, film school was not an option, so he was stuck studying economics.

He left Iraq in 2001 to join his family in Brussels. Once here he began to study accountancy, until a chance encounter with Sint-Lukas prompted him to change direction. Winning the Wild Card at the end of his studies was an important encouragement. 'Competition is very tough in Belgium,' he says, 'and without the VAF Wildcard I might not have been able to continue making films. So it was a big opportunity for me.'

Borrowed from friends
Working with mentor Dorothée van den Berghe, director of My Queen Karo, and producers Hendrik Verthé and Kobe Van Steenberghe, he chose another story from his stock of ideas, and turned it into his second short film, Land of the heroes.

It draws on his experience growing up during the war between Iraq and Iran. 'We had no choice about what we could watch on TV,' he recalls. 'It was always reports about victories by the Iraqi army, and we would have to wait four or five hours in order to watch a cartoon,' he explains. Not only were they deprived of entertainment, but they were exposed to brutal images of the war. 'There was no-one to say that certain things shouldn't be shown to children. So we saw everything.'

His film is about three children who are playing at 'Saddam' while waiting for the cartoons to come on. Their mothers are busy cleaning weapons that the children have collected from near-by battlefields. This aspect of the story was borrowed from friends. 'Our city was a long way from the border with Iran, so we didn't have to deal with the war. But a lot of Kurdish children at that time collected weapons to survive. The war was their life.'

'We chose a big theme, but we didn't want it to be too heavy for the public, so we decided to make it with children and make it in an ironic way. Our lives in Iraq were full of irony'

Vein of irony
He returned to Iraq to shoot the film, choosing his home city Zakho in the north of the country, close to the Turkish border. 'It's not safe near the Iranian border, although where we were was not 100% safe either,' he says.

However, it was important to be there. 'We got a lot of help from the people around us. Material support, such as film lighting and cables, but also moral support.' The Kurdish government was less easy to deal with. 'If you ask them for help, they always push you to make political movies. I'm more interested in social drama, in culture and in psychology.'

There is also a vein of irony in his film. 'We chose a big theme, but we didn't want it to be too heavy for the public, so we decided to make it with children and make it in an ironic way,' he says. 'And our lives in Iraq were full of irony.'

Filmmakers he cites as influences include the great Kurdish director Yilmaz Güney and Emir Kusturica. 'I'm also interested in Hitchcock and his psychological themes, and in Stanley Kubrick. I also like films such as Casablanca, which addresses a big theme with a simple love story.'

Kalifa is now thinking about a first feature, the story of a second-generation immigrant to Belgium whose strict traditional family pressures him to have his child aborted when they discover it will be a girl. While this again touches on his own environment as an immigrant, Kalifa doesn't intend to limit himself to such stories. 'I'd like to make films with Belgian and Flemish actors, and they won't always deal with my own cultural identity. I want my films to be universal.'

Playing the Wildcards
Producer Hendrik Verthé (c) Bart DewaeleIt's not just filmmakers who can get a start through the VAF Wildcards. 'It's great for young directors, but for us as a start-up company it was also a great way of beginning,' says Hendrik Verthé. He is producer with a team productions, a company he co-founded two years ago with Kobe Van Steenberghe after they graduated from the RITS film school in Brussels.

By courting VAF Wildcard winners, a team productions has been able to get an inside track on the funding process and start to build a portfolio of films. 'We always said that we need to make five or 10 shorts to show that we are able to do it, and then we will move on to feature films,' Verthé explains. 'That's the plan.

'They began with Pim Algoed, a VAF Wildcard winner in 2007, producing his extravagantly titled short How to Enrich Yourself By Driving Women Into Emotional and Financial Bankruptcy. This was followed by Sahim Omar Kalifa's just-completed Land of the Heroes. And they also worked with Robin Pront on his graduation short Injury Time which received a special mention from the VAF Wildcards jury.

Verthé sees an advantage in having young directors and producers working together. 'We are working at the same level, whereas if they go to a bigger producer, as a young director they are always just a beginner.'Now a team productions will move on to another short, De Applausstreaker by Ruben Vermeersch, and then a feature documentary, From Science into Fiction, by 2008 VAF Wildcard winner Bram Conjaerts.

Verthé will also be attending the Rotterdam Lab, the International Film Festival Rotterdam's training programme for producers beginning an international career. In his pocket will be Algoed's outline for a debut feature.

Published on Tuesday 25 January 2011

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