The difficulties for anyone new breaking into the rarefied world of filmmaking are well documented, even-more-so if you hail from the notoriously strict and reserved countries of the Middle East. All of which makes the accomplishments of the young Kurdish filmmaker Lauand Omar all the more impressive. His new film Curse of Mesopotamia – only his second outing as director — an atmospheric mix of modern day neurosis and ancient horrors, is the first English language genre film to come from the Middle East.
Omar recently took time out from promoting the film to tell Scream what it was like to bring the legends of his homeland to life on the screen, as well as the difficulties he faced making a feature film in a country living in fear of ISIS.
SCREAM: How did you get into filmmaking?
Lauand Omar: First it was just a passion, watching movies all the time. I started writing scary short stories, then decided that this is what I want in life, making movies. I went to film school in the US and Canada studying Film and Television production, focusing on Script and Directing.
SCREAM: Your first film – Bekhal’s Tears – was a drama, whilst your new film, Curse of Mesopotamia, is being heralded as the first English language horror film to come out of the Middle East. How do you feel about this, and what attracted you to make a horror film?
LO: I always loved horror movies, and most scripts I have written are horror or suspense. Bekhal’s Tears, a drama dealing with honour killings, was not planned at all, I wrote the script on my first visit to Kurdistan Iraq and it was inspired by the young people there telling me about their problems, problems that no one wanted to talk about. It was very controversial in that region and created a lot of discussions — mission accomplished!
Regarding Curse of Mesopotamia, I’m very content to be the first. Filming in English helps you reach a broader audience. The viewers are bored of watching the same old thing, the Middle East has more stories to tell then war and dramas, there are a lot of legends, fantasy, supernatural tales too. Great talents, music, fashion, none of it has been exposed to the movie world yet.
SCREAM: There was a gap of almost ten years between Bekhal’s Tears (made in 2006) and your work on Curse of Mesopotamia (2015). Was there a reason for this?
LO: I was working in TV for several years, producing reality shows in Dubai, then I co-created / wrote 2 tv series in Morocco and Algeria. It’s hard for all filmmakers anywhere to get funding for their scripts, and in the Arab world it is even harder. Most films are financed by the Ministry of Culture, and they only pick a handful every year. The system of having private investors for films is not wide spread yet, most movies go to festivals and thats it, they don’t make profit so why should someone invest in it, right? But things are changing, slowly, but changing.
SCREAM: Tell us briefly about the story behind Curse of Mesopotamia and what, if anything, is its message?
LO: My script is based on the Newroz legend. Newroz, the day the people rose up to dethrone an evil king, is still celebrated to this day amongst Kurds and Persians and other ethnic groups from former Mesopotamia. Being Kurdish from Syria, I grew up with that legend, so I took that legend from 600B.C. and played around with it, connecting the story with modern day characters. The main focus of the movie is to entertain the viewers, take them on a trip with my characters, from past to present. “We never seem to learn do we, or is there something that prevents us from learning?” asks one of the characters in the movie, where the never ending struggle for freedom and happiness is caused by a vengeful demon. In real life you could say it’s about facing and fighting your inner demons to make the right choices for a happy life.
SCREAM: You’re both the writer and the director of the film, as well as one of its producers. What advantages did you find in doing several roles on one film and which, if any, did you prefer?
LO: As hard as indie filmmaking can be, I love the artistic freedom that comes with it. The writer in me was happy as the director liked and agreed on everything haha. I love writing, you are on your own, in your own little world, creating a universe and characters. Directing I love too, though next time I would probably not produce parallel to directing. It’s hard to fully focus when distracted. The distribution phase is very different, I’m learning a lot as a producer. Right now the producer in me is on fire, the Director would like to go back in time and try other things, and the writer just wants to move on to another project already!
SCREAM: The cast of Curse of Mesopotamia is very eclectic — in experience, skills and nationalities. How did you choose the cast and how well did they work together?
LO: Some of the cast members I had worked with before – French actress Melissa Mars starred in my Algerian TV Series, so did Morocco’s Kaoutar Boudarraja – and some were actors I had wanted to work with for a long time, American actor Terrell Carter for example. It’s not easy getting good talent to sign on to a low budget indie film, on top of that the filming location being in a country most had only heard about on the news connected to war and terrorism. But I was lucky, they loved the script, and I got the actors I wanted. I’m very proud of my cast, they gave their best. They got along pretty well, there was so much happening around us during filming so it was all about giving the best and getting it done, the pro’s stayed focused and delivered.
SCREAM: Do you feel you’ve brought anything new to the genre with the film?
LO: That’s for the audience to decide, it’s hard for me to see it as what it is at this point, I’m too involved. I like to believe that my diverse characters are something fresh and original for the genre, and it’s definitely not a remake or a sequel, that itself is a fresh breeze of air in today’s horror releases.
SCREAM: Several scenes are quite graphic and violent. Did you set out to shock, and is there a point with horror beyond which you wouldn’t go?
LO: To me the violence in Curse of Mesopotamia reflects the horror that is happening with the characters, it wasn’t put there to just shock. I’m not a big fan of gore that is just there to gross you out, it might work once or twice, but a lame movie with lots of body parts and blood will still be a lame movie.
SCREAM: There is a particularly gruesome method of murder in the film. Without giving too much away, was this your idea or was it an authentic historical method of torture and murder in the ancient Middle East?
LO: In the Newroz legend King Azdahak was said to be tricked by a demon in to eating children’s brains so he could gain eternal life. It was what made him the man he was. The scene in the movie with him and his Queen feeding shows how deranged they are, getting sexually aroused just after brutally taking their dose of brain.
SCREAM: The film takes place in both modern day and ancient Iraq. Why did you want to make a film spanning different historical periods, and what do you think this brought to it?
LO: It was a very ambitious decision, having a low budget and deciding to create two worlds, with all it’s locations, sets, wardrobe, characters is challenging. But I think that’s one of the strong points of the movie. Personally I’m fascinated with the thought of reincarnation. Could it be that certain things go or don’t go a certain way because of unfinished business from a past life? Could it be that that one person you just met and feel like you have known forever is actually someone you did know from another time?
SCREAM: The film’s storyline involves a lot of psychological issues and interaction between the characters and their various personalities. What did you get from creating such varied characters and a storyline which, for a genre not always known for its depth and subtlety, has a lot going on beneath the surface?
LO: I actually wish I could have gotten more into each character, their background, their journey, but it’s a hard thing to accomplish with 5 main characters in a 92min feature. What I did get was creating characters I would personally like to see more of in movies. We have a hispanic hero, a bisexual player, a radical islamist, I love and celebrate diversity in real life, and enjoy to watch and to create diverse characters in film.
SCREAM: How did the current unrest and troubles in the Middle East, particularly with groups like Isis in Iraq etc., effect the production of the film?
LO: While we were in pre-production news came that ISIS had entered Iraq from Syria. I met with several government officials, no one ever thought that ISIS was going to get even close to Kurdistan Iraq so we moved forward. Who would have thought that 2 years later ISIS still exists, that no coalition has been able (or wanting it seems) to stop them. We had to stop filming after only 2 weeks in Kurdistan Iraq. The savages got pretty close to Erbil where we were filming. We were not in direct danger, but panic in the city, traffic, checkpoints, internet and phone lines cut at times, made it logistically impossible to keep filming. We gave up our main sets to help in accommodating refugees, some of our local crew members grabbed their guns and went off to fight, we lost all return flights as the airport was shut down. All the money we had invested there was gone and we ended up with half the movie filmed and no budget left. My foreign cast and crew kept its cool, some of the ladies actually wanted to stay and fight, it seemed like the curse we talk about in the movie had taken over. It was heartbreaking to witness some of our local crew members in tears as they got word of family members stuck in nearby villages taken over by ISIS. Making a movie miles away from massacres and genocide makes you question, What am I doing here? But a year later, during the pre-release in Iraqi cinemas it made sense again, they had a report on the news talking about the movie, in between reports of terror and war, and there it was, arts, culture, entertainment, we did that, we gave positive news to the world in between all the madness. And creating jobs for locals, fun jobs in an artistic environment is what really helps the people to be happy and look forward to a better tomorrow instead of giving in into darkness and making the wrong choices.
SCREAM: The areas where you were filming and where the story is set, are clearly strongly Muslim. Did this have an effect on the story or film, and did you personally or the production generally, meet with difficulties from the local communities?
LO: Not at all. We only had contact with our crew members, and a few outsiders from press and locations. I was a little worried about local crew members reactions during filming certain scenes, sexual stuff or scenes discussing religious views, but everyone was so respectful to the project, to their job. Maybe it’s because most people that work in cinema are the younger generation, they are artists, cool and open minded. We finished the movie in Jordan, I loved it there, the people are amazing, cultured, smart, oh and very good looking :o)
SCREAM: The film’s subject matter (i.e. a horror film) may not go down well with certain religious groups — both Christian and Muslim. Is this a difficulty which you’ve faced?
LO: Not yet, but I think this will start showing once the movie is released. And I don’t think it’s a religious thing. If a hardline Jew doesn’t want to watch the movie because it was shot in the Middle East by a mainly Muslim crew, or if a radical Islamist will badmouth the movie on social media because he considers it to be harem, or if a fanatic Christian will hate to see a bisexual characters who is secure of himself and his relationship with God, then it’s not about their religion, it’s about them personally: them using religion, to hide behind it, to spread their ignorance, fear, and trying to justify their closed minds and them being jerks. I don’t practise any religion, and I’m too busy figuring out my life and enjoying my own journey than to get into other people’s business and point fingers, and I expect the same from others. And ultimately, you can’t do a movie and expect everyone to like it, I don’t do movies to please everyone.
SCREAM: What has the public’s reaction to the film been so far?
LO: So far so good, we were the no.1 movie amongst the new entries in Iraqi cinemas, just behind the new Bond movie and the feedback on social media from Iraq was mostly positive. Now we are about to get feedback from more parts of the world, some people tell me I shouldn’t read the reviews and critics, but I’m too nosy, I’m really nervous but it’s exciting too haha. My parents like the movie, does that count?
SCREAM: What problems if any have you faced promoting and distributing the film (did you consider approaching a festival like FrightFest)?
LO: Worldwide Distribution is a whole new world for me. It’s interesting, and annoying at the same time. There is a lot of waiting involved, which is challenging. The unexpected seven month break between filming in Kurdistan Iraq and wrapping in Jordan has left its mark. We don’t have the luxury to sit and wait to negotiate the best offer. Sponsors have to be paid back. And there are a lot of bullshitters in the industry, surprisingly the bigger distributors were friendly and welcoming, vs smaller distributors who wouldn’t even be interested in viewing a screener or would make an offer where you basically give them your movie and never see a dime. Most horror film festivals I was interested in have their season in the fall/winter, last year we missed the deadlines, and now we can’t wait, we have to release the movie, so ultimately we decided to go indie all the way, we are doing self distribution, starting with an iTunes and Amazon release in the US and Canada. There might be a couple of festivals in Latin America later this year, and in the fall the movie should be available worldwide.
SCREAM: Have you set out to scare with this film, and what, if anything, scares you?
LO: Well I surely hope the audience will be scared! Being haunted by a demon and fighting for survival isn’t so pleasant, right? What scares me personally are humans. The human psyche when it goes dark. I’m not scared of the supernatural. I think we are always surrounded by other life forms and beings, so I’m more scared of the next door neighbour.
SCREAM: Which actors or filmmakers associated currently with the field of horror would you like to work with, or are there any from the past you would have liked the opportunity to have collaborated with?
LO: I would have loved to work with Jerry Goldsmith the composer. He was just amazing. The soundtrack for The Omen is one of my all time favourites. Oh and David Lynch, I would carry his briefcase, make sandwiches, anything, just to be on his set observing and learning. I think I would even consider a sex change if that’s what it would take to be close to him. You hear me Mr Lynch?
SCREAM: Do you want to do more horror and what projects are you working on now?
LO: Horror is very diverse, and has so many sub-genres, and yes it’s the universe I plan on staying in for now. We are preparing The Last Party, a horror/fantasy film to be shot in Guerrero, Mexico, hopefully early 2017. I’m also working on a new script. Hopefully I will be on set again soon, I miss it!
SCREAM: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your work and the film.
LO: Thanks to Scream Magazine for your interest in our little indie!
Curse of Mesopotamia will be available to watch in the US and Canada from this month on iTunes and Amazon, and in the rest of the world later this year.
Words: Cleaver Patterson (@Cleaver68 / @ScreenAndGone)