André N. Anton is Defying Deletion
Defying Deletion: The Fight Over Iraq's Nineveh Plains portrays the struggle of the Assyrian race since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Assyrians are part of Iraq's surviving indigenous population, but they are being persecuted and pushed to the brink of extinction. The emotionally-charged story told in Defying Deletion is an important one because of how this injustice has gone largely unreported by the mainstream media. Assyrians have faced persecution in Iraq--largely as a result of their Christianity--for generations, but in my documentary short Defying Deletion, I chose to focus on on post-Saddam Iraq, because the acuity of the current persecution threatens the very survival of the Assyrians as a people.
Of the 1.2 million Assyrians who lived in Iraq prior to the invasion, over 600,000 have fled the country, mostly to neighboring countries. Now, for the first time in history, there are more Assyrians living in diaspora than in their ancestral homeland. Assimilation into new cultures is inevitable. Simply stated, if Assyrians do not survive in Iraq, their culture will become extinct.
As an Assyrian-American, I knew this was a film I wanted to make. The challenge was in how to come up with the visual material without having to step foot in the war-torn country of Iraq, which would be impossible due to lack of financing. Unfortunately, a few years ago members of the Assyrian community lost several million dollars investing in a failed independent production of The Epic of Gilgamesh. They didn't want to make the same mistake again and were wary of entrusting their finances to an unknown director.
A year and half later, when I had almost given up hope of being able to make my film, a student from the University of Toronto named Alda Benjamen sent me a Facebook message about 20 hours of footage that she had shot while in Iraq during the summer of 2007. A few weeks later a friend put me in touch with Elmer Abbo, an Assyrian doctor at the University of Chicago, who was interested in financing my film.
Alda's footage was very strong, but it was not enough. I needed to hire a team to help me shoot visual reenactments, B-roll footage and interviews. I was fortunate to find local talent who were used to working on larger productions, and they offered their services and equipment to me at a significant discount. Of course, they did so because they were not working on one of those larger productions, but they also really appreciated the humanitarian aspect of the film.
Additional footage was obtained from Alda's contacts in Iraq. She met a couple of videographers who worked for a satellite station in Northern Iraq and were willing to send material (based on a detailed shot list I sent them) in exchange for secondary unit credit. Footage of Assyrian refugees living in harsh conditions in Syria and Jordan was obtained from the Adopt-A-Refugee Family program.
Translating the interviews from Assyrian and Arabic into English was very time-consuming; the whole process took about 6 months. By the third or fourth month, we had decided to do only rough translations for the dozen or so interviews we had left. That way, we could get a general idea of what was being said, then go back and translate word-for-word if needed.
The finished film is in NTSC format with a 16:9 aspect ratio, but oftentimes the raw footage was not. My secondary unit team in Iraq shot in PAL with a 4:3 aspect ratio, so my editor and I had to transfer the footage into NTSC, which resulted in some lost quality. Then we expanded and reframed each shot in Final Cut Pro so that they would match the aspect ratio of the rest of the film. This resulting footage looked a bit grainy, but color correction and editing gave it a deep, rugged look that we regarded as necessary to the feel of the film. With documentaries, you can get away with using different formats and aspect ratios, and doing it the way we did actually helped make the film more personal. Sometimes you don't know what the problem is until you stumble upon the solution. Still, it would be interesting to know what the final edit of the film would have looked like had everything been shot in 1080p with a 16:9 aspect ratio.
The goal of Defying Deletion, and of everyone who worked on it, is to raise much-needed awareness about the plight of Assyrians in Iraq. I hope that the film helps compel the United States and other countries to provide greater assistance to Assyrians trying to survive in their homeland. So far, the film has screened at 11 film festivals and has won several awards, including the award for Best Documentary Short Subject at the Detroit Independent Film Festival, where it premiered.
I hope to continue to screen Defying Deletion at festivals throughout North America before taking it abroad. I currently have a list of over 3,000 people interested in purchasing a DVD, and if I cannot find a distribution deal by the end of next year, I will move forward with distributing the film myself. While the film festivals and awards are nice, what I found most satisfying was when Defying Deletion was shown on Capitol Hill last July. The film was seen by Senator Mark Kirk, whose assistance made the screening possible, and Representatives Gary Peters, Anna G. Eshoo and Frank R. Wolf. Many who saw the film told me afterward that they hadn't known about the plight of Assyrians. Due to the success of the Capitol Hill screening, a second is being planned for later this year.
The real reward, though, will be if my film can help prompt the United States and others to take action and save Assyrians.
For more information on Defying Deletion: The Fight Over Iraq's Nineveh Plains, and to watch a trailer, visit www.defyingdeletion.com.