For Raouf Zaki, making a film is an act of faith. And more.
“It’s about having faith, losing faith, having faith, losing faith, and having faith again,” says Zaki (COM’89), whose 40-minute Santa Claus in Baghdad was well received at screenings in schools and libraries across the United States last year. A stream of the film is available on Zaki’s Web site until December 31, so educators and others can preview the film during the holidays.
The idea for Zaki’s second featurette came to him one spring day in 2006, when he was walking around Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. He had recently read Figs and Fate: Stories About Growing Up in the Arab World by Elsa Marston, and several scenes in the book reminded him of his childhood in Egypt. The book’s images of family life and schoolyard play haunted him as he walked through the cool New England woodland, and he felt a growing rush of conviction that he should turn one of the stories into a film.
“I just fell in love with the story,” he says. “After that I was determined to turn it into a movie. I felt like I had to be an alchemist, but when you decide to do something like that, sometimes all the forces seem to line up.”
One the most important forces that lined up was a remarkable Iraqi production designer named John El Manahi, who had worked on films like The Station Agent and The Speed of Life. Manahi, who was living in New York, knew that the design of certain types of public architecture, such as railroad stations and schools, look much alike around the world. Zaki says he watched in amazement as Manahi found common structural elements to transform a train station and a schoolroom in Framingham, Mass., into the same sites in Baghdad. Manahi also happened to be familiar with an open-air book market in Baghdad that figures prominently in the film, and he managed to build a close replica. For the street scenes that Manahi’s genius couldn’t create, Zaki took his camera to Cairo.
Santa Claus in Baghdad is a heartrending, “Gift of the Magi”–like tale of a 16-year-old girl searching for a gift worthy of her favorite teacher, and about her young brother, who believes that an uncle visiting from America is Santa Claus.
“It’s a story about giving in a time of need,” Zaki says. “It’s about people caring about each other and helping each other.”
In that sense, says Zaki, whose first featurette, Just Your Average Arab, was awarded Best Film in the 2006 Boston Comedy Film Festival, the narrative of Santa Claus in Baghdad was a lot like the making of the film.
“The blessing of working in America is that you are working with people from so many races and nationalities, and they all come together,” he says. “My designer was from Iraq, one of my directors was from Israel, and here we were all working together. You could feel the spirit.”
For more information on Raouf Zaki’s work, visit RA Vision Productions.
Art Jahnke can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Bostonia.