The Liberace Of Baghdad

Tag: The Liberace Of Baghdad

The festival circuit

I was at the wonderful ‘One World Festival’ in Prague last weekend, it was great to see how big it has grown since my film ‘Settlers’ opened it in 2000. Sadly on my arrival I got an email from Samir (from my film ‘The Liberace of Baghdad’), he is now living in USA but wrote to say he has prostate cancer and will soon be undergoing 42 days of radiation treatment. That evening I sat by the grand piano in the foyer of the beautiful 1930s cinema and missed him dearly. I was in Prague to show my latest film ‘Japan; A Story Of Love And Hate’, the cinema was packed and it was voted the 4th favourite film by the audience the next day. Not bad out of 300 films.

Today I arrived in Porto, Portugal, and I am heading to small village festival (with my Japan film) just over the border in Spain. A place called Tui. But no-one has come to meet me, so I am on a bus trying to make my own way there.

I am getting flash-backs to the time I showed a film here, in 1998(?), I was with with Kev from ‘Working For the Enemy’ no-one showed up to meet us and no one came to see the film.

But, I tell myself, this festival is over the border in Spain… I just hope there is an audience at tonight’s 22:30 showing of my film – Mind you I don’t even know if I will be there yet.

New York

I was warned that after spending a month in Japan, I would feel like a goldfish in a bowl and need to come up for air. It’s beginning to feel like that time of the month and I made an opportunity to escape.

I had a screening of Liberace in New York and I needed time to reflect on this film and whether or not to make a film at all in Japan.

I’m still asking myself is this the place i wanna be? sometimes it hurts real bad but then there are good times, mostly in the evening. God damn it, I keep meaning to give up drinking. I woke again at 3pm, went to bed at 5am this morning, it was only Sunday night. What happened to my catholic upbringing?

Anyway New York was the chance to take me away. I met with someone I’d never met before, (a friend of a friend) and made a very close friend by the end of my 3 days in New York. Me and Murat were like Turkish brothers, I appreciated his hospitality a lot, but by the end of the 3 days he said he’d partied enough for the year, and I was only just beginning, like a goldfish that had jumped from the bowl.

The screenings went well (as always in New York). I love New Yorkers. I wanted to make the decision to leave Japan and never return… but god damn it, I was missing the place! and more-so the food, New York used to be a food paradise but it now seemed awful when compared to Japan. Even for me as a vegetarian, this place (Japan) really is the food capital of the world. They make better French food then the French, better bread, pastry, coffee, ice cream, cakes..

Oh god my weight, I never took up karate, it felt too much of a cliché, and I was scared of being bruised at my delicate age. So i intended to go to the gym, I even got a map of the nearest park to jog, but instead I’m waking late watching my belly grow bigger on great food and no exercise.

So I was kind of excited to be returning to Japan, then it started to snow in New York. Oh my god, it snowed. I took a cab to the airport but we lost the airport! nowhere to be seen. It was New York’s 2nd heaviest snow storm. 2 feet of snow, we were guided by a passing car to the airport finally. The flight was delayed 10 hours until the evening. Fortunately I’d upgraded with air miles and had a business class seat, so I was in the lounge. I watched the machines hard at work removing the snow on the runway, but just as they moved it more snow would come. It seemed never ending.

Then half an hour before we were due to fly the flight was canceled. We were shipped to a terrible hotel, had a terrible meal, terrible breakfast and ferried back to the airport the next day where I found I’d been downgraded to economy class because the flight was full – but given 3 seats to myself to sleep on, and access to the drinks bar up front. Some comfort.

I arrived back in Japan more exhausted then when I left, my relaxing weekend ended with more stress than a month in Japan. Now I’m sat here feeling like leaving but knowing I’m staying still looking for something to relate to, something to call my film.

News in Brief

Latest news in brief – Samir was over in Europe taking part in a piano festival in Paris. After this he came to stay at my house in Brixton for a month, during which time ‘Liberace of Baghdad’ won Special Jury Prize at the It’s All True Film Fest in Brazil and a Special Jury Prize at the Chicago doc fest. I choose to attend DocAviv Film Fest in Tel Aviv where the film was in competition – one of 10 films selected out of 300. I did a masterclass on my approach to doc film making, and met up with some old ‘war mates’ – journos from Baghdad. Samir was too afraid to attend though, he is worried about going back to Baghdad after being in the West for over 4 months, if news got out that he’d been to Israel he could become a target.

Back in the UK Samir played a small concert in the bar at my local cinema.. The Ritzy in Brixton, London. My agents PFD had kindly donated money for the hire of a Baby grand. The evening was sold-out and a great success. The next day we headed up north to my hometown, Hull, where the film was playing in a small art house. We were met by local TV camera’s filming our visit, we travelled on Hull Trains who had kindly sponsored my trip home. First stop was fish and chips for the t.v cameras, though Samir could not understand how fried potatoes could be eaten with fish!! We did a question and answer session with a keen audience after the film and watched ourselves on local telly. Although going for a pint in The Minerva Pub with my dad proved difficult and embarrassing – we suddenly appeared on the telly to the amusement of the whole pub. They all cheered “See ya later Liberace!” as we left.

It was back to London and the big goodbyes again. The goodbyes, that are normal for Samir’s family, split between Iraq and America, have become the same for us now. Each time he leaves it is from the same terminal at Heathrow, he cries worried we will never meet again. I know we always will. Then I go to Dublin with the film, and then onto Prague’s Oneworld festival where a I discover the young woman programmer with strange PC tastes almost barred Liberace of Baghdad from the fest because they saw Samir as a chauvinist! new forms of censorship rise from former communist states it seems! What misjudgments, someone who has really missed what Samir was showing them. Instead of being offended this woman should have felt privileged to have an insight to this man’s world, bearing himself honest and open with all his human imperfections.

Well at least the beer is always good in Prague, even if the beautiful city has been destroyed by British/Irish groups over there on sex/beer trips. Reminds me why I find the Middle East so attractive and what I hate about my homeland.

I am now in and out of meetings with ‘Working Titles’ Eric Fellner (Europe’s biggest producer), and Jana Bennet Director of Programmes at BBC along with various people at the Film Council about my next ventures. I’m looking at raising money for a film in Japan and /or Ethiopia as well as plodding along endlessly with my drama project that has been on the go for 3 years with BBC Films. Watch this space!

Liberace in Boulder (Best Festival Ever)

After Sundance Samir went to stay with his family, it was poignant moment, he met his wife for the first time in 5 years, they held each other, hugging and crying, very moving. The young Casanova felt like an old man now.. I left him there for 4 weeks came back to the UK.

We were reunited when I returned to show the film in Boulder, Colorado. Samir was a different man, he’d been groomed by his loving wife. She’d even cleaned all his fingernails and toe nails as well as groomed his ponytail. I thought he was maybe be going to reunite with her when his visa eventually come through. But no, he told me he’d been bored and was desperate to get back on the road with the film. He wanted to get away again, so we took to the air and landed in Boulder, a great Colorado town where we met the fabulous Beeck sisters. They are an amazing trio who make films together with fabulously supportive parents. The best hosts yet. We were received in splendour with a fine hotel, drinks and all, but no cigarettes, Samir nearly got a ticket for smoking in the street. Boulder is one of those clean US towns but the Beeck sisters made up for that, especially Robin who would nip away for crafty cigarettes whenever she got the chance. We developed an intimate relationship, like kids behind the school bike sheds smoking secretly.

The closing night was in a 850 seat theatre which was packed. There was an awards ceremony before the film, we were at the bar as usual casually watching the show not expecting to be part of it as our film hadn’t been screened yet… Then out of the blue we were called out and we were given an award of excellence. They played our film and Samir was taken back stage behind the screen to where a piano was hidden. Samir changed into a tuxedo and took his place at a grand piano, he was lit by a bright light from above, then, as the film finished, the screen rolled back to reveal him sitting there. The crowd cheered and he played for 30 minutes, it became a rock concert. I stood looking from the sidelines thinking of all the times he’d told me he wanted fame, recognition, in America; and here it was. I felt and proud and happy for Samir that my film had brought him a little closer to his dream.

Like Brothers Now

Oh how we partied, like little children on holiday, or more like a rock band on tour. It didn’t take long before everyone knew ‘the Liberace entourage’ had arrived at Sundance. I was making a video diary for BBC 2’s ‘Culture Show’ so I brought my friend Johnny along to film it. Samir of course was there, Ollie, the editor and co creator of all my films was there too, also Andy and Nick my mates from Hull who’d come for free parties, wine and women.

And so we partied in abundance, usually 3 a day, all with free bars wine and women, such was our interest in the films. The place was surreal, especially for Samir who looked on with wide open eyes taking in American culture for the first time in his life. For me I kept thinking of Iraq, of Baghdad, of the strange messed up place I’d left many months ago only to find ultimate success here at Americas top film festival. It was a privilege and I was proud, and so happy for Samir. He was proud, but after travelling so far, (nearly not getting there due to the racist security men in London Airport) he was now intent on only one thing, winning the international competition.

We had four screenings over 10 gruelling days. We had employed publicists who were working us hard with lots of newspaper interviews, tv and radio.. on the first day we did live a breakfast tv show and Samir announced he’d killed a man in the Iran war, the interviewer went quiet and they showed a clip from the film. All media stuff is supposed to be very glamorous but its dull in reality. But I must not complain, we seek this sort of thing all our lives then it happens and we moan. I made a point of never moaning about it and always looked forward to the next free bar. Sleeping was tough with 7 in one room and only 2 beds. Samir soaked up all the attention from young girls at parties, he was the ageing rock star and lasted the course well. He was always on the dance floor, occasionally topless, never failing to try and impress some young admirer.

Then it suddenly ended with an awards ceremony. I was cool but Samir was anxious. I got angry with his desire to win. I was just happy to be there, one of only twelve films chosen from the world for competition. Amazing. But no, he insisted on winning. Then we arrive and we are asked to sit at the end of the row.. the publicist had heard good things, he said to start preparing a speech.. I was now anxious and Samir speechless. I drank red wine and began to think. The Liberace entourage would keep nipping off to fill up my glass. I couldn’t remember all the thank-you’s, then I looked around the vast place with huge screens off the stage all over the place. I just couldn’t imagine going up there. Before long it had begun and it didn’t take long to hear that The Liberace of Baghdad had won a ‘Special Jury Award’.. There was a cheer and we were on our feet making our way to the stage, making a speech, holding each other up, and hearing the crowd laughing. Samir was moaning to them that I had brought him thousands of miles from his home to talk to people he didn’t want to talk to.

At the back stage party Samir and I held each other, he wanted to cry, he said he was so happy, not for him but for me. He could see how happy I was to have won and it made him happy and proud to have given himself to the film. “We’re more then friend’s” he said, “We’re like brothers now.”