One of the star guests at the recent Vancouver International Film Festival was Salam Pax, aka the Baghdad Blogger. Pax, he never uses his real name, shot to fame in the run-up to the U.S. led invasion with his postings online about the daily hardships and concerns of Iraqis.
The blog, championed by The Guardian, proved so popular that after the fall of Saddam the newspaper gave him a DV camcorder, and sent him off to shoot a series of video diaries/blogs from inside Iraq, which are now broadcast on the BBC's Newsnight. Pax has also launched a new book, Salam Pax, The Baghdad Blog.
Pax didn't go looking for fame. It came to him, and if anything the easy-going 31-year-old seems embarrassed by the amount of attention he has been receiving. But Pax who is gay, likes his alcohol and is an avid follower of Western pop, has struck a chord with his drily humorous, and often highly personal reports on the Iraqi situation.
"I really don't represent most Iraqis," cautioned Pax, speaking at the Vancouver press conference. "Many of them... wouldn't even like me, but the thing is I speak English and I'm standing in front of your cameras."
Pax, who jokes in one of his blogs that he is a "bad" architect, had virtually no film training. He apologised to other filmmakers in Vancouver, saying he didn't feel like he deserved to have the title "filmmaker", although he was coming to the festival with seven of his Newsnight video clips describing life in post-Saddam Iraq.
He later told me that his only filmmaking experience was a weeklong crash course on videomaking that The Guardian sent him on before he started shooting.
When he films, he just keeps everything on auto and shoots. "Even auto focus?" I asked. "Everything," he said, with an emphatic wave of his hand.
The edited footage has a rough home video feel that is apt for the diarist nature of the video blogs. He films himself in the mirror, or let's his friend Raed take the camera. Sometimes he's too involved with the person he's interviewing to notice his camerawork is getting a little askew. It doesn't matter though because the essence of each ten to fifteen minute video clip is Pax's thoughts on the current state of Iraq which are provided by way of voice over.
If you share the view that there are too few Iraqi voices coming out of the Iraq and have watched the situation in Iraq descend into chaos, Pax offers a unique perspective. Pax in blog-mode offers an opinionated commentary of events as they are unfolding laced with cool humour.
For instance, when he gets on a truck with a noisy bunch of gun-toting El-Sadr militia he says, "Now I don't usually do this. Guns and shouty voices make me very nervous. But if they tell you to come, you better come along." And what other journalist would think of doing a "hello mum" for a militia man in a war zone, as he does in Najaf?
He doesn't claim to have the answers, in fact at times he's frequently as stunned by events as we are, but you get a sense of being engaged with a man on the street in post-Saddam Iraq.
Pax is a rarity in another way. He dares to hope that with the removal of Saddam Hussein, and in spite of the current turmoil, a freer, fairer Iraq will emerge.
"I have to keep reminding people about what they have now and the most important thing is they have hope. It was going to be hunker down, hunker down, hunker down for the rest of our lives. This is how you live your life... you're not supposed to look around the world at what is happening and you live in a very tiny, small world," he said at the press conference. "Now everything is open. Why can't more people see what they have in their hands now? Why can't they see if they get their act together they can have a great future? Hope for a better country..."
At the same time, he acknowledged to the press in Vancouver that the initial optimism of his early video blogs had given way to frustration.
"I am very grateful
Pax fears that Iraq may descend into an oppressive theocracy if the coalition beats a hasty retreat from Iraq without ensuring that proper democratic elections are held.
It is strange, considering the international fame that Pax is finding for his blog, video reports and book, to think that in Iraq Pax is unknown and anonymous.
"The way I talk about the religious positions, political groups would make me very unpopular," he says.
"I will not even go somewhere in public saying that I believe that the only way out for Iraq is to work with coalition forces and to get over things. This would put a big stamp of "collaborator" across my forehead. You have to be careful."
The self-promotion may have a higher purpose ("If the media stop being interested then we're in a lot of trouble."), but you'd think that with all the publicity he is getting internationally he would be hearing his critics at home by now. Not so. Pax says that Iraqis simply don't follow what he is doing overseas or on the internet.
Working with a small DV camera that fits in the palm of the hand no doubt has helped him remain inconspicuous. It probably also helped him gain the kind of access that he wouldn't have had were he travelling through Iraq with a film crew in tow, whether that be the numerous interviews with Iraqi people, Iraq's holy places or armed dissidents brandishing their weapons.
Pax's engaged, honest and entertaining reports are a good reminder of why DV filmmaking, even in the hands of a beginner, works.