My Lost Country: The Memory Is Not Extinguished

in 24th Ismailia Festival for Documentaries and Shorts

by Amal Elgamal

 In this personal but mediative documentary, director Ishtar Yasin Gutierrez visits her father’s homeland of Iraq to uncover unanswered questions and Amal El Gamal illustrates parallels she finds from her dual Chilean nationality.

The director, Ishtar Yasin Gutierrez, begins and ends her journey in Iraq. She starts at the Institute of Theatrical Arts and then at the end she returns to the Euphrates River. In the present, she begins by opening a window to the past. My Lost Country (بلادي الضائعة) blends the polyphonic, multi-layered past with the intense present in a charming harmonious fabric, to present a cinematic autobiographical film with a variety of voices.

The director is searching for her lost country. She takes us on a journey concerning the life of her father, Mohsen Saadoun Yassin, an Iraqi theater director and artist, who spent most of his life in exile. Mohsen married the Chilean dancer, Elena Gutierrez, in Baghdad. He was a student and a professor in the theater department at the Baghdad Institute of Fine Arts during Saddam’s dictatorship, around the time his brother was imprisoned. Five sons of his uncle disappeared and the father didn’t even dare to inquire about them because everyone was living in fear. Most of Mohsen’s family members had dispersed around the world. They are a powerful paradigm of the diaspora meaning.

Mohsen’s theatrical works were political and put his life in danger, so he fled Iraq. Even after the fall of Saddam, he refused to return to Iraq because of the American occupation, summing up the reality of the invasion with an eye-opening and sarcastic phrase: “Oh, if only Iraq’s oil was Iraqi.”

After his death, his daughter (also the director) began the search for her lost native land and history that pulsates with her Iraqi roots. She started crossing borders in search of her homeland, father, culture and art in order to reunite body, mind and soul. Ishtar was crossing borders, starting in Chile, in order to reach Iraq – from her homeland to another homeland.

“Oh, if only Chile’s copper was Chilean”. What a coincidence. Is it? Do we remember the military coup in Chile?

“Who pushed Salvador Allende? Who supported Pinochet – that dictator who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990? Wasn’t it the USA?” Ishtar’s father asked. “As well as killing a high number of people in Iraq, they also destroyed the country causing terrorism to enter Iraq because the Americans were there.”  

Yes, the memory is not extinguished. And yes, it is a political issue. However, it’s a film that magically combines the personal and the collective heritage. The director accompanies us on an intense journey of cinematic imagination charged with unspoken, whispered questions, bewilderment about the homeland, lost lives and acquired lives, which may make us wonder whether these gains make up for the losses. Is this compensated by this depth and cultural richness that resulted from the mixing of civilizations? The director herself is a strong and positive example of the mixing of cultures. This multiplicity gives humanity richness and depth, and a solidity that is not devoid of delicacy and romanticism.

Ishtar went to Iraq in search of her lost homeland, but in fact she was also looking for her father, who had passed away and who had told her about his obsession with the old Iraqi folk songs that he used to kept repeating over and over again. He asked all his doctors about the secret behind it, but no one succeeded in being able to provide the answer.

Did Ishtar go in search of the secret of this obsession?  Perhaps she wanted to restore and document the memory, immortalizing it forever through cinema, the threads of which are woven in a whispered and delicate poetic mixture.

During the journey of research and film-making, through the body of the film itself, she mixes reality with dream, myth with geography, and history with art. Ishtar moves us through the fragmented images, where we live the lives of others – various family members and their relationship – in Iraq and Chile. It gives us very clear glimpses of tens of kidnapped people in Chile and Iraq. As well as the lives of her father in various exiles and a strong touch of the relationship between the father and Ishtar, we see exchanged messages between them as well as lost messages, her studying the art of cinema in Moscow and glimpses of her mother’s life, who is almost absent from the movie, except for some photos, which tell us a love story.

Within the images, we find a soft, poetic film. It relies on an unconventional narrative structure – closer to the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky – the cinema that does not tell, but inspires, whispers many things and feelings and which talks through metaphors. Ishtar Yasin Gutierrez uses pure cinematic language, illustrating that she is a creative woman and that the Arab and international cinema needs people like her.


Amal El Gamal
Edited by Steven Yates