Given recent global events, Baghdad Central could hardly be more relevant...
It’s one of those cyclical things that emphasises how geared up the Americans are for war. Iraqis have been protesting against government brutality, so it does feel like a cycle, but Iraq and its people has always been Otherised, so that we can swallow something as huge as a drone strike on their central airport. Our show, on the other hand, follows an Iraqi protagonist, Khafaji (played by Waleed Zuiater), someone we can empathise with. It’s maybe an attempt to slightly rebalance that Otherisation.
Was that why you got involved?
Yes; I read a script with a point of view I hadn’t read before. There’s also a big theme of women in Iraq – while we were making it, cases of abuse and the disappearances of women were coming to light. It educated me as I went along.
What were your priorities when you took it on?
I wanted to bring Khafaji’s perspective to life, so we represented his Baghdad rather than a technical exercise. We needed to become part of the family – when we see issues and characters we can empathise with, we shrink the world, and Waleed is such an inclusive actor. The story of someone being galvanized into action is important: he is damaged and reluctant to involve himself, until he’s pulled into the fray. And I love the rebellion. You see it with Sawsan (Leem Lubany) and Amjad (Tawfeek Barhom), but the quiet rebellion is from the person in the heart of the institution. It’s also important to show the joy in people’s stories, even in the grim times. Khafaji brings an optimism by the end, an idea of redemption.
How was the experience of filming in Morocco?
There are very few places you’re allowed to use that could represent Iraq. It boiled down to South Africa, parts of Spain and Morocco. Jonathan [Curling, producer], Kate [Harwood, exec producer] and I had all filmed in Morocco before, we really liked the Moroccan actors and crew and felt very comfortable using those resources. American Sniper had filmed there so we knew we could make it work. I thought we’d be using loads of visual effects, but we ended up using very little. The main thing was painting out satellite dishes, which were illegal under Saddam and only just coming into use in 2003. And it’s a point-of-view show rather than a sprawling epic – we didn’t need to see it as a city, rather to see it as Khafaji’s home.
Who did you talk to in terms of research?
I love that part of the job – Arij [al-Soltan, associate producer] is Iraqi and she was great for giving the point of view of a woman who had to deal with all the ramifications, as well as for tiny details like tea caddies in the flat. All the actors brought their own experiences to bear as well. It was a really harmonious set.
What source material did you look at?
Rory Stewart’s book was interesting. He was good on the Green Zone. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City was essential reading too, although a lot of material is from the western point of view. Very few have been written by those in Baghdad at the time of it.
After a rash of Iraq War films and series, there have been very few over the last decade. What have another 10 years of perspective brought?
I don’t remember anyone doing it from an Iraqi point of view. Maybe it takes that long to get over the Otherisation, the xenophobia, the warmongering, the fear, or we’d go insane thinking about the atrocities we inflict on other people. And I don’t think anyone really wanted to examine the fact that we jumped onto the back of an illegal war, although my 11-year-old son’s politics books now talk about this, which is really interesting.