NYFA MFA Filmmaking student Israa Al-Kamali decided not to bring a seat to the table but instead build a table of her own. Israa, who is of Iraqi origin, co-founded the Independent Iraqi Film Festival. IIFF is a community driven, not-for-profit platform dedicated to supporting films from and about Iraq.
Israa Al-Kamali spoke with NYFA about what inspired her to bring this festival to life and the importance of Iraqi stories.
New York Film Academy (NYFA): What did you study and what made you decide to come to New York Film Academy?
Israa Al-Kamali (IA): I graduated with a BSc. in Foreign Service in Culture and Politics, at Georgetown University. I am currently studying MFA in Filmmaking at NYFA, LA. Ever since I was a kid, I was writing stories and over the years I began to notice that my stories are very visual; I would imagine the way the camera would move or what the soundtrack would sound like. I decided on NYFA because I wanted a hands-on intensive experience with a holistic approach to the art of directing. The NYFA LA campus is located in one of the hot spots of the filmmaking industry in the US. Therefore, I chose NYFA-LA.
NYFA: Do you have any advice for incoming students? What about international students coming to study at NYFA?
IA: My advice would be to make sure to always be visible and that happens through collaboration with other students, take advantage of networking opportunities, be professional, carry a good attitude, and try new things. I know it’s easier said than done but as long as you carry your passion with you, people will notice it. The second piece of advice I want to give is that your education and your degrees not only depend on the classes you take but also on the way you shape them; use the resources at the school to network with people in the industry, look for like-minded individuals who have similar goals and approaches in their creativity. Do not limit yourself to your classrooms, venture out and seek fellow creatives who focus on similar interests.
NYFA: Can you tell us more about your career and more about starting Iraq’s first independent film festival?
IA: After graduating from Georgetown, I worked in PR, social media, and content development, but I was writing scripts and stories on the side. It became unavoidable. I had to start working on my dreams. Independent Iraqi Film Festival (IIFF) is a community-driven platform dedicated to supporting films from and about Iraq, facilitated by me and three other Iraqi volunteers working in the creative industry. The seven-day festival is online and free, featuring shorts programs, feature films, and Q&As. It can be viewed worldwide, with English subtitles. Sharing the most exciting work by emerging and established Iraqi filmmakers, our aim is to showcase the diversity and resilience of our people, as well as the breadth of our culture to a global audience.
NYFA: Why is the film festival market an important place for independent film festivals? Can you explain the significance of this particular film festival in Iraq?
IA: The Independent Iraqi Film Festival was born out of my love for films and Iraq as well as the urgent need to create a platform and space for Iraqi stories and storytellers. From conversations with Iraqi communities both in Iraq and in the diaspora, I and my fellow co-founders knew that there was an appetite and curiosity regarding Iraqi stories by Iraqis. Our experiences are complex whether back in Iraq or in the various Iraqi communities in the diaspora. Iraq is rich in culture, history, and diversity, and it is time for our stories to be highlighted and brought to global audiences.
We created this first-of-its-kind festival to uplift filmmakers, inspire audiences, and engage the film industry in the country. Iraqi films are not given the spotlight they deserve and it is not because there aren’t any films made by Iraqis; the 90+ submissions we received this year and the 5000 online viewers we had last year are an indicator that there is a lot of talent and passion out there.
Iraqis have watched their experiences and stories being told by others through films that are usually filled with racism and stereotypes; War and destruction is the only point of reference and it often ignores the nuances of the Iraqi experience whether in Iraq and outside the homeland. Our festival created a space for Iraqi creatives from all communities to come together to tell our stories. This festival is for Iraqis in Iraq and in the diaspora, for every resilient Iraqi who is fighting the everyday battle to preserve our history, culture, and experiences. It is for the creatives and storytellers. It is definitely for non-Iraqis too to come and watch our stories on screen, celebrate people’s resilience, learn more about our rich and complex experiences in the homeland and beyond. It is for the emerging young Iraqi filmmakers to get a chance to showcase their talents to global audiences and for the established filmmakers to give more people the chance to enjoy and engage with their films.
NYFA: How do you hope to see IIFF grow in the next few years?
IA: Our first edition of the festival, August 2020, was very successful. We had 80+ submissions last year and 5000 total online viewers. For our closing night, we hosted an in-person premiere of Baghdad in my Shadow (2019) by Dir. Samir in London. Our festival was covered by various international news outlets, radios, and magazines such as GQ Magazine, Al Jazeera, Grazia, Middle East Monitor, Monte Carlo Radio in Arabic, etc.
We are hoping to continue to grow as a festival and showcase more Iraqi stories, host lectures, workshops, and screen more films in person.
NYFA: Do you have any upcoming projects coming up that you can share?
In addition to working on the festival, I am currently working on my first feature film at NYFA. Right now I am in the development stages and I hope I see it come to life.
The New York Film Academy congratulates Israa on all the work she’s done with the Independent Iraqi Film Festival – we can’t wait to see this festival continue to grow!