Three new documentaries show the impact of military conflicts on everyday life in the Arab region: the exploitation of vulnerable Iraqi girls in war’s aftermath, the suffering of families in Aleppo under siege, and the struggle to find hope in blockaded Gaza.
Undercover with the Clerics, Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade
In an undercover investigation by BBC Arabic, journalist Nawal al-Maghafi exposes the clerics exploiting young women and girls by trading them for sex under the banner of zawaj al mutaa, or pleasure marriage, which is illegal under Iraqi civil law.
Some Shia clerics claim the practice, which allows a man to pay for a temporary wife, is permissible under Islamic law, but Undercover with the Clerics, Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade shows children trapped into marriages that can last only an hour or a few days. In a statement to the BBC, Ayatollah Sistani, who is one of the most senior figures in Shia Islam said: “If these practices are happening in the way you are saying then we condemn them unreservedly. Temporary marriage is not allowed as a tool to sell sex in a way that belittles the dignity and humanity of women.”
In the streets around the shrines at Kadhimiya, the abuse appears to be widespread. Of the 10 clerics approached, eight told the undercover reporter, posing as a potential client, that they could arrange a pleasure marriage. During one conversation he’s told “Nine years old plus, there’s no problem….do what you desire.” In another scene, the reporter asks the cleric whether he should be worried about exploiting a young girl. “What if she gets hurt?” The cleric waves away his concerns. “That is between you and her,” he says.
Later the camera zooms in on his fat hands counting out $200 for a pleasure marriage with a girl he believed to be thirteen, in a ceremony conducted over the phone. “Now you are married and you can have sex,” he says.
The film also sheds light on the situation facing girls who are pressured into pleasure marriages. Mona (not her real name) was just 14 when she was intimidated into marrying an older man in an arrangement that was kept secret from her parents. When she tried to stop seeing him, he told her that he’d filmed them together and threatened to show people the video. “After that I was terrified. So I did anything he asked,” she said.
Mona now lives in fear that her family will discover she is no longer a virgin. Her cousin was killed by her uncle and brothers for having a boyfriend and now she’s considering suicide before they learn the truth. “If I feel more pressure, I will do it,” she told al-Maghafi.
This hour-long documentary, which was first aired at the beginning of October and is currently available online, shows the power of investigative broadcast journalism to expose abuses that have gone unchecked.
Yanar Mohammed, an activist who runs women’s shelters in Iraq, places the practice of pleasure marriages in the context of the roll-back on women’s rights following 15 years of war in Iraq and the rise in power of religious clerics. A few of these women and girls find their way to shelters, she says, but many end up in brothels where they live short, unhappy lives. “It’s always the girls and the women who pay the price,” she says.
On the screen, a baby is being held upside down and slapped desperately on the back to make him draw breath. For several long seconds, nothing happens. Then the baby cries, the audience breathes an audible sigh of relief and the indecipherable chaos of Aleppo under siege resumes.
For Sama is Syrian film-maker Waad al-Kataeb’s way of telling her daughter, another baby born amid the airstrikes, why they risked their lives to support the fight. Barrel bombs pound the streets around the hospital where her husband Hamza volunteers as a doctor, but the newly married couple choose to stay on even as government forces close in. “I need you to understand why your father and I made the choices we did,” al-Kataeb says before admitting that she can hardly believe it herself.
Watching the couple rush back, cradling their daughter Sama, to war-torn Aleppo after visiting relatives in Turkey, feels surreal. When they did finally flee, al-Kataeb smuggled out more than 500 hours of footage, which she and British film-maker Edward Watts have weaved into one of the most intimate and affecting accounts of the Syrian civil war.
Al-Kataeb’s camera shows the camaraderie as well as the carnage—a rare piece of fresh fruit for a loved one, children playing in the street, families sharing food with friends—between scenes of blood-soaked streets and corpses slumped in a hospital room after another attack.
A mother teases her son for his terrified tears as shooting starts up in a nearby street. But this is an inside-out world where small children know the names of different bombs and make burned-out buses their playground.
Over the course of this 90-minute film, al-Kataeb’s raw, unrelenting footage shows the reality of life inside Aleppo and the hope that sustained those who stayed. It’s a powerful personal account that tells a wider story of human endurance in a war zone when the outside world has turned away.
The starkly named Gaza, an Irish-Canadian co-production, made by acclaimed directors Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell, starts slowly, lulling viewers into the everyday rhythm of Gazan life. We see 19-year-old Karma going to her cello lessons, a young rap artist recording music in the studio and a fashion designer who hosts catwalk shows in her garden. There’s beauty and ambition and so much familial affection that, for a while, it’s easy to forget that rockets can rain down at any moment. “People from the outside countries, they can’t see other than the fact that we live in constant war… they should look deeper,” Karma says.
Hardship is a constant in the Gaza strip, which is 25 miles long by seven miles wide and home to two million people. We meet children who sleep on the rubbish-strewn beach; fishermen starved of fresh catch; an old man barely able to buy food and a taxi driver who spent 20 months in prison because he can’t pay the bills, however hard he works.
Somehow life goes on, until the next attack. Then children run for cover and people start to scream. Ambulances beep frantically to get past panicked crowds and thick black smoke chokes the sky. Outside the hospital, it’s chaos. Inside, desperate parents console one another. A father holds his toddler so a medic can tend the sobbing boy’s wounds and a little girl lies alone on a hospital bed in the corridor, a slight quiver of the lip showing she is still alive.
Commentary from a news reel tells us that more than 2,200 Palestinians died in the 50-day war between Israel and Gaza in 2014, almost 500 of whom were children. Four years later, 60 Palestinian protesters were killed and more than 2,500 wounded in a single day on May 14, 2018 during a six-week protest calling for the right to return.
The film first aired in August and is now being shown in select cinemas. Beautifully shot, at times the pace feels ponderous, but the slower scenes reinforce the relentless limbo of life in Gaza. As the taxi driver says, “It’s as if we are in a car with flat tires and we’re stuck in the mud. We can’t move backwards or forwards.”
Halfway through the film, Karma’s mother flips through a photo album and reminisces about a time when life was normal and there were no restrictions in Gaza. At night, she strokes her daughters’ hair as they fall asleep. She echoes the guilt that haunts Waad al-Kataeb in For Sama. “I wonder if it was fair of me to give birth to them here,” she says. “How could I let my children live through three wars?”
The film is scheduled to become available on a video-on-demand basis on number of platforms on November 4, including iTunes and Amazon.