When a tragedy happens in a far-off land, it is easy for it to become just another story in the news cycle. The Detroiters who made the documentary, Marked: The Untold Story of the Iraqi Christians, want to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The movie, which premieres at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Hills on March 23, is about the horrific persecution of Chaldean and Assyrian Christians in Iraq. Late last week US Secretary of State, John Kerry declared what is happening to Christians in that nation genocide.
“Our ultimate goal is to bring attention and save lives,” says Vanessa Denha-Garmo, a Chaldean and one of the three producers and directors of the documentary. “If we can save the life of just one person it was worth it.”
The other producers and directors are Karam Bahnam and Al Zara. Caroline Hormis Sarigiannis, a former reporter for Iraq-based Ishtar TV, which specializes in Chaldean Syriac Assyrian affairs, helped set up the interviews and gathered much of the information from Iraq.
Though persecuted under the Saddam Hussein regime, the ISIS era has ushered in far worse suffering for those Christians who remain. This includes torture, execution and being forced out of villages they’ve lived in for nearly 2,000 years.
Assyrians and Chaldean Christians have a long history in Iraq. They lay claim to being the first residents of Mesopotamia and were converted to Christianity by St. Thomas, a follower of Christ. Now that 2,000-year-old legacy threatened.
For the Christians of Iraq death has become an ever increasing presence in their lives. ISIS has driven many from the villages and towns they occupied for generations. Towns populated by Christians are now completely devoid of them. In attempts to flee, 40,000 have become trapped in the Shingal Mountains. Thousand have died of exposure. Thousands more have been killed by ISIS.
As recently as March 12 of this year, Christian books were publicly burned. Killing continues to be a daily event.
When ISIS captured the city of Mosul on June 10, 2014, it began driving out the Christians. It marked Christian homes with the red letter “N,” for “Nazarene,” then confiscated their homes and exiled their owners. Now no Christians remain in Mosul and city’s 45 churches, monasteries and cemeteries have been destroyed, occupied, shuttered or converted to mosques. In what might be the greatest insult of all, many were converted to headquarters for their ISIS persecutors. All water and electricity has been cut off and Mosul is now under Sharia law.
One example of the church destruction is an Assyrian monetary that had been standing since the 4th century. It is said to have contained the tombs of several Old Testament prophets such as Jonah.
According to the website, Genocide Watch, at the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were 1.4 million Iraqi Christians. With the invasion of Mosul their numbers were cut by more than 80 percent. Today there are fewer than 200,000 Iraqi Christians and 170,000 of them live in squalor and poverty without housing or enough humanitarian assistance.
The situation in Iraq is especially relevant to people of in metro Detroit.
According to the Chaldean Diocese, about 125,000 Chaldeans live in metro Detroit, or the majority of all those living in the US. More than 95 percent of them can trace their origin to two towns in northern Iraq, Telkaif and Alquosh.
It is no wonder the Chaldean/Assyrian community in Detroit want to bring the suffering into the brightest light.
Marked: The Untold Story of the Iraqi Christians focuses on Father Douglas Bazi, who was captured by ISIS, tortured and had his teeth broken. Even so, he refused to leave and stayed in Iraq to help the endangered Christians.
One of the driving forces of production on the film was Bishop Francis Karvat, who was concerned the atrocities would be either ignored or forgotten.
The documentary was made on a shoe-string budget of $30,000 so volunteers were essential to the film’s creation. Karvat helped the team get in touch Mar Toma, the media wing of the Eastern Catholic Re-Evangelation Center in Bloomfield Hills, to find volunteers.
One large obstacle was that none of these four volunteers were filmmakers. While Denha-Garmo has a history in both print and broadcast journalism and is a storyteller by trade, there were still many skills missing. This made it a learn-as-you-go experience.
Things came together fast. Footage from the Hussein era in Iraq was purchased from news organizations, while much of the footage of the country’s current state was provided by Sarigiannis.
The documentarians received more help when it was shown to a focus group. Two producers at the viewing gave them feedback on how to improve the project.
After the premiere the documentary is scheduled to begin a tour of churches and schools across the country. First on the list are New York, the San Diego area, and Chicago. All of these cities sought out the film. San Diego and Chicago have large Chaldean and Assyrian Christian populations, making this film very personal. The documentary team is interested in showing it in New York because the U.N. headquarters is there.
Detroit’s own large Chaldean population showed great support and interest in the film.
The goal to raise awareness is not only for political purposes. It is very personal to those who made it. They also want to encourage people to help however they can.
There are charities that help the situation. Chief among them is Helpiraq.org. This group gets teachers, desperately needed medical care and even more mundane items such as feminine products and diapers to refugees.
There is also hope the documentary will be used by the college curriculums to teach and instruct on religious history and persecution.
“It saddens me that we can never have country that we deserve,” says Denha-Garmo.
She says the terrifying events not being called genocide, influenced and motivated their work. I spoke with her less than an hour before Kerry announced the genocide declaration.
About this change in US policy she says, “This is very important and gives those persecuted hope. It also puts pressure on political leaders to hold ISIS accountable.”
Still, she says, Assyrians and Chaldeans still question why it took long enough to produce a documentary in the first place.
The film premieres during Holy Week on Wednesday, March 23 at 7 pm at the Maple Theatre, 4135 W Maple Rd., in Bloomfield Township
– Photos of the refugee camps by Stivan Shany