Interview by Zaradasht Ahmed, director Nowhere to Hide IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary, to Dimitra Kouzi.
How did you get involved with this story?
Zaradasht Ahmed: The idea started in Afghanistan, back in 2008. The mainstream media was not telling the whole truth about the American and Coalition invasion of Afghanistan and its fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban, so together with Dr. Husum (a human rights activist and war surgeon), we worked to recruit local medics and journalists to document first-hand information from areas where most of the media did not have access. We initially wanted to make a film on this “new war”. We called the project “the new war machine”. We focused on exploring the type of war: what it is; is it different; is it between countries (a frontal war); or is it transborder warfare without fronts. Two years later, in 2010, we moved the concept to Iraq. I was sure that this “new war” would emerge in cities there. That was our main intention. We started with that idea, but gradually we ended up with a character-based, very intense film about Nori. In this case, it was the situation that drove me to change the direction of the film, and not the other way round.
How did you meet Nori?
Nori was one of the twelve medics we trained in Iraq. He singled himself out by being very interested in documenting and filming in the areas called “no-go zones”; places organisations, doctors and journalists do not have access to. He did not know much about filming to start with, but he was interested, and he had the will. That is how it started. Nori comes from one of these “no-go zones” – a town called Jalawla, in Diayala Province in central Iraq.
Your origin is Kurdish and you live in Norway. How did you get there?
We eventually moved our “base” to Sulaymaniyah in Northern Iraq, where I originally come from. Diyala Province is three and a half hours from where I lived, and it is my mother’s home town. The medical organisation led by Dr. Husum and the local Kurdish doctor, Dr. Modhafar, was based in Sulaymaniyah, so it was natural that we ended up there. In addition, Sulaymaniyah is a safe base to work from.
You don’t live in Sulaymaniyah anymore. How many years have you been living in Norway?
I have lived in Norway for 22 years.
Do you feel privileged because of that, or do you feel in as if you are still in exile? What is your relation to your home country?
After getting Norwegian citizenship I can move freely, and that makes me feel privileged. I have been living in exile since the early 1990s, soon to be 26 years now, so it is difficult to compare my situation to Nori’s. Nori has been forced to leave his home and has been placed in an IDP camp (a camp for Internally Displaced People), and it is important not to mix the terms “Internally Displaced People” with “people in exile”. I chose to leave because of the political situation in my country; Nori was forced. Therefore, my interest in following Nori’s story is not due to our similarities, to be honest. My other film, Fata Morgana, was about exile and the desire to seek a better life elsewhere.
You worked on this film for five long years.
I like long-term documentaries. I like to spend years on my films, on my subjects, on my characters because I believe that film is storytelling. It is also about some unique moments that we call the moments of truth. These moments won’t happen unless you spend a lot of time with your characters, you have to get behind many layers to reach the heart of what the feeling is; and the truth is often found under all these layers.
How much is your original footage in the film, and how much is Nori’s footage? When it comes to the footage, the entire shooting of the film has been a complicated process spanning over five years. We started with collecting material from several sources. Following the dramaturgy of the film, you could break it up simply like this: The first act is shot mainly by me, but when Nori starts to be trapped in Jalawla, he is on his own, and the first-hand accounts from the fall of the town, the collapse of the hospital through the fleeing all the way to the IDP camp was shot by Nori. Towards the end of the film, the scenes of returning to the hospital and the entire final act are mainly shot by me again.
How much material did you have? 300–400 hours.
How did you manage to make this storyline emerge out of all this material?
It is really difficult to answer that question. It is the result of team work. By being open to the changes, allowing me to go further, to focus more on Nori and his personal point of view. We went from a story with questions such as: “Is it possible to live in a war without fronts, without a visible army of only faceless solders?” to a personal story of one man and his family trying to survive a highly brutal warfare, told in a dramatic film. That was a major change for us. One of the toughest challenges making the film was not the material itself, but the need to pursue that material further, because once you start following a character you have to put all your effort into him, and you need to build the scenes that will enable you to create that storyline. In the middle of this process, Nori’s town became a living hell; suddenly ISIS came and the hospital was being bombed, he was targeted and had to flee with his family. At this point we could not leave him there, we had to keep following. I found myself sitting for days and nights in Iraq because I had no access into the area, as it was controlled by ISIS. So I was calling, directing, helping, cheering him up and constantly talking to him, because he felt really down during that phase.