IDFA: The Swedish film The Deminer competing for the VPRO Best Feature Length Doc, will keep audiences on the edge of their seat. We spoke to director/producer Hogir Hirori.

Hirori was born in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1980 before coming to Sweden as a refugee, aged 19. He has teamed up with co-director Shinwar Kamal, from his native town of Duhok for The Deminer, his second feature documentary after The Girl Who Saved My Life, winner of Göteborg’s Angelos Award for Best Swedish Feature in 2016. The Deminer was produced by Hirori’s Lolav Media, with seasoned producer and former Swedish Film Institute documentary commissioner Antonio Russo Merenda of Ginestra Film. Hirori speaks about his film.

When did you hear about Colonel Fakhir for the first time and when did you meet him?
Hogir Hirori: Colonel Fakhir had long been a familiar face to me, and he was a bit of a celebrity for many Kurds and Arabs. I had seen pictures and short films about him and his work for many years. To me he was already a great leader with a big heart. A hero and symbol of humanity in the midst of war and turmoil. He was often described as the smartest and most skilful deminer who saved so many lives.

I met him the first time in 2014, while working on my former documentary film The Girl Who Saved My Life, and the co-director of the movie Shinwar [Kamal] had already filmed him. Later, I decided to make a film about him and his life as a deminer and wanted to know what drove him to do what he did, and how his family handled his dangerous job. I began to contact people who had filmed or interviewed him earlier, and people who had worked with him in the military forces. The more I found out about him, the more I became attached to his story.

The film makes use of video footage filmed between 2003-2008 featuring Fakhir at work but also your own footage. Can you explain your editorial decision to find a natural dramaturgy? 
HH: Thanks to the fact that we had a lot of film material from 2003-2017, we were able to pick all the scenes that are in the movie. No scene is the same, even though all scenes are about demining. To me it was very important to incorporate the material into a coherent movie that could reach a wide audience. I admired Fakhir as a person and his power to save innocent people and wanted to make a film that honoured him while showing the dangerous reality he actually lived in.

Fakhir has desarmed thousands and thousands of mines just with a pair of clippers and scissors. What did you learn about the ‘art’ of demining as it all seems to be based mostly on gut instinct?
HH: Fakhir was the most experienced and reliable deminer in all of Kurdistan and Iraq. He learned early how to safely disarm mines with simple means because it always took too much time for the special equipment to arrive. And he had the unique ability to know where the mines were placed while no one else could see them. Even though his life was at risk every second, he continued to look for mines and car bombs and took risks that no one else was willing to take. He always said, "If I fail, only I die, but if I succeed, I can save hundreds of people.”

Fakhir was more than a deminer as we can see in your film. He was a skilled negotiator and adviser, full of empathy. We see this when he addresses US Army troops with whom he worked for a while, and Civil Kurdish Iraqis….
HH: He left his wife with eight children at home and became a deminer, not to earn money or to achieve any high status, but he had a single goal, saving the lives of innocent people, regardless of religion, background or colour. How many such people do you know? I knew one - Colonel Fakhir.

His son Abdulla is very open and proud of his father. How did you work with him on the story? Will he also become a deminer?
HH: We worked a lot with Abdulla and also followed his own dream to become a deminer for a while. His dad had taught him a lot and he was incredibly good at it, but his family really did not want him to do it. However, we chose not to include that part of Abdullah dreaming of becoming a deminer because we wanted the movie to be mostly about his father, Fakhir. We therefore chose to bring Abdullah as a narrator instead.

How difficult was it to put this movie together?
HH: It was incredibly difficult and we had 76 different versions before the final one. Towards the end, we also received a lot of professional help and feedback from some talented documentary filmmakers, which took the film to new heights.

On the production side, how difficult was the funding and who were the most important financial partners?
HH: We had a strong and unique film idea, amazing raw material, an experienced producer and a good team. The film received the largest part of its funding from the Swedish Film Institute, but also from SVT, Nordisk Film & TV Fond, Film Stockholm / Film Basen, DR and YLE.

What are the distribution plans for the film on a local and international level?
Dogwoof Sales is our international sales agent outside North America, which is handled by Cinetic Media. We do not know how and when the movie will be distributed in Scandinavia; we are waiting for some answers.