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‘Immortals,’ About Iraqi Anti-Government Protestors, Boarded by Cat&Docs: ‘Young People Were Crying for Visibility’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Paris-based outfit Cat&Docs has acquired world sales for “Immortals,” the sophomore feature film by Swiss director Maja Tschumi (“Rotzloch”). The film will compete in the main competition at leading European documentary festival CPH:DOX, and will also screen at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in the Open Horizon section.

Catherine Le Clef, president and CEO of CAT&Docs, said the “striking film” had “the potential of becoming a cult film of its genre.”

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It tells the story of Milo, a feminist who sneaks out of the house dressed as a man so she can take part in the October 2019 protest movement in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, and Khalili, a young filmmaker who uses his camera as a weapon to document the bloody crackdown on the youth demonstrations.

The film offers a rare cinematic glimpse into life for Iraq’s youth, in a country where more than half the population is under the age of 25. Deconstructing Western clichés of the uprising, it starts with vibrant scenes on Tahrir Beach back in 2019, where young people gathered to protest, play beach volleyball, and listen to and perform rap – the battle cry of Iraq’s anti-government protests.

Tschumi decided to make the film after meeting an Iraqi activist at a workshop in Berlin: “When I saw this crazy repression on social media and how all these young people were crying for visibility on all platforms – Facebook, Instagram, TikTok… everywhere! – I decided that I, as a filmmaker, had to get the funding to make a film.”

“We have a lot to learn from young people in the Middle East. The world is no longer listening to them now that the war with ISIS is over, but what they are trying to do is create a civil society. Especially today, with the borders between the Arab world and the Western world growing because of the war in Gaza, it’s urgent to show the bridges, to show what we have in common, and not just divisions,” Tschumi tells Variety. “I was very surprised to find how many stereotypes I had about the people of Iraq – but Milo listens to the same music as my sister’s daughter!”

Divided into three chapters, the film chronicles Milo’s “Hidden Battles” as a woman, the “Confrontations” filmed by Khalili on the streets of Iraq, and finally the “Decisions” both protagonists take in the aftermath of the uprising.

Both Milo and Khalili co-wrote the film with Tschumi, who says she wanted to give them the creative freedom to tell their own stories: “It was clear for me that this project had to be a collaboration, because I was not coming from a place where I knew, I was coming from a place where I wanted to learn, get inspired by the creativity which I felt in this revolution.”

When she started shooting in 2021, Tschumi was searching for activists who were filming what was happening on the ground. She soon met Khalili, who entrusted her with his footage from the October Revolution and introduced her to the film’s Iraqi co-producer Mohammed Alghadhban. Tschumi’s Iraqi collaborators were pivotal in helping her navigate filmmaking in Iraq without endangering the crew.

“Khalili trusted me because I was an outsider, and because I was not attached to any producer or TV [network] — it was just me. We have this collaboration and I feel this duty as a filmmaker to show what I saw and experienced. I have this deep wish to continue learning about this young generation,” she says.

Including a female voice in the film was essential for Tschumi to show what she describes as a gender-segregated society, where women face very different problems to men, having to fight patriarchy before they can confront the state: when her family found out she had been protesting in 2019, Milo was imprisoned by her father in her own home for a year.

Finding a female protagonist proved challenging but Milo was eager to participate despite the risk, and actively contributed ideas, particularly for certain scenes that required re-enactments, as clandestine filming was deemed too unsafe. During the shoot, one re-enacted scene shows her arguing with her best friend as she tries to convince her to flee Iraq with her. Milo and her friend have since left Iraq and are safe, says Tschumi.

She chose to call the film “Immortals” for several reasons: first, she says, she was shocked at how the young activists risked their lives in the hope of a better future for their country.

Secondly, she adds, “it’s a generation that’s very connected, that’s into video games and super hero stories. Many super heroes are immortal, so I found it nice to play with that pop culture element in this youth uprising.

“Finally,” she explains, “I was shocked at how normal death is in Iraq: people are used to loss, everyone has lost family members in the wars, there is also a lot of dark humor about death. They are all survivors.”

It is produced by Mohammed Alghadhban and Nadine Lüchinger of Swiss film outfit Filmgerberei Switzerland, and funded by Suissimage, the Zurich Film Fund, Swiss National Television and the Corymbo Foundation.

CPH:DOX runs in and around Copenhagen from March 13 through March 24.

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