The short film ‘A Portrait of Iraq’ by New York-based filmmaker Janssen Powers recently caught our attention for its simplicity, intimacy, and thought-provoking story telling. Powers, who is originally from Seattle, started doing video work for tech companies such as Amazon and Microsoft, but over the past few years, his portfolio has come to encompass more documentary work focused primarily on the developing world and conflict zones. Powers’ first time in Iraq was with Nations Media in April 2016 on assignment for a feature-length documentary. Before his third trip in 2017, Powers had become discontent with the image of Iraq portrayed in the news and at home in the United States.
“I was beginning to get frustrated with my inability to explain how different it was, how open and accepting the people were, and how generous they were. Going into this third trip, I knew I wanted to try and find some way to capture the beauty of the country and of the people, so I decided to bring a 16mm camera along.”
After asking his partners at Nations Media about starting a personal side project, Powers began to capture a more intimate and positive portrait of Iraq and people he came across over his time there. The subjects of these video portraits, as Janssen told us, “were just people we met along the way.” Powers explained that he had his camera with him at all times, so whether at lunch or walking down the street, he would always be looking for “someone who looked interesting or had a different look or looked very normal, looked like someone I would see in the US,” and with the help of an interpreter, Powers would ask these people to take their portrait.
When we sat down with the filmmaker for an exclusive interview, we asked Powers to explain his experience as a traveling videographer needing to work with an interpreter and he noted that while the language barrier with his subjects was always somewhat of a challenge, the presence of an interpreter was almost always positive.
“I think as filmmakers, especially documentary filmmakers, our job is to do our best to relate to the people on the other side of the camera. The camera is the tool by which we are able to share what we see with our eyes with the world. To make strong films, it is important to connect on a personal level with the people you are interacting with. Working with an interpreter does sometimes make it difficult because there is a barrier between when someone says something to me or I say something to them and that message having to be translated through another human. It definitely has its disadvantages. That said, there are so many advantages to working with an interpreter. There are many times when the interpreter we were working with, who is originally from Iraq, had such a strong knowledge of cultural things I didn’t understand or ways in which to communicate to people what I was trying to do. Even if I was able to speak Kurdish or Arabic, I don’t have the years of experience or understanding of the culture that he has, so I think its super important to work with an interpreter that you feel like understands the project and understands your heart and your intention behind the project.”
Powers brought only 30 minutes of film with him for this project, so in order to take advantaged of the limited time he had to shoot with, Powers described how important it is to “really slow down and take a breath and be in the moment.” Powers questioned how past projects would have unfolded had he took a breath to be in the moment, so for this project he would often set up the camera and pretend to begin filming and really try “to let the people in front of the camera become a little bit uncomfortable or become more comfortable.” After the subject in front of the lens became more comfortable and he started to feel some emotion coming out of the moment, “whether it was the person who was looking around or was the person who really started to look into the camera and wonder what I was doing,” he would begin to roll. “And I would just let it roll until I felt like the moment was gone.
“Outside of the aesthetic benefits of how real and organic film looks,” Powers relayed, shooting on film ensured that he would take that moment to slow down.
While all the portraits in the film were beautifully intimate and powerful, we wanted to hear from Powers which one moment best displayed his love for the series and the country. He responded that while every portrait tells him something specific about the country, the one moment of an elderly woman at the 1:35 mark truly captured his heart. The woman who is Yazidi, an ingenious group that has been the target of genocide by ISIS, had for years been living in the refugee camp where Powers had first met her in October 2016. Her initial expression in front of the camera was, as Powers described, “very stern and stoic,” but when a family member behind her made a comment, “she looked back at them and then back at the camera and just had this massive smile on her face, just ear to ear smiling… it was amazing and it was breathtaking.”
And how had moments such as these changed and affected Powers’ approach to his work, to his life?
“As a filmmaker, especially as a documentary filmmaker, I think it’s my job to do my best to connect with people who I am telling the story of, with the people that are on the other side of the camera. In a lot of ways, I think that in order to be a good filmmaker you have to let the things that you experience and the people that you met change you a little bit. All of these moments, all of these trips, and the people that I’ve meet that maybe had differing opinions than I have had or showed me a side of the world or a side of faith or a side of humanity that I wouldn’t have experienced had I had stayed in New York. All of those moments have had a profound impact on the way that I see the world, the way that I see faith, the way that I see life. An important part of being a filmmaker is learning to let those things shape and change you.”
Powers commented that the response for the film has been incredible. This project, that was initially supposed to be “something that I was going to share with friends on Instagram or my wife and family,” has reached so many and while he currently doesn’t have current plans to return to Iraq, he does hope to one day go back and explore more regions of the country with his 16mm camcorder. As of now, Powers is using his new 16 mm to explore “a handful of these passion projects on film this year.” At the beginning of April, Powers was in Alaska creating a feature on a woman named Lena Charley. The film, which he plans to release this summer, focuses on her life as a 90-year-old Athabaskan in a dogsledding community in southern Alaska.
If we are as amazed and inspired by Lena Charley as we were with his subjects in Iraq, then we are sure that we are in for another beautiful film from Janssen Powers.