By Gill Pringle at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

After Hussein was overthrown in 2003, he was possibly the most wanted man in the world – with a US$25 million bounty on his head – yet, incredibly, Alaa Namiq hid the former dictator in the dirt beneath his flower beds.

The story of their unlikely relationship is outlined in Namiq’s first person account, which forms the main narrative of Halkawt Mustafa’s compelling Hiding Saddam Hussein documentary.

When Hussein and his guards first came knocking on Namiq’s door, the two men were total strangers, although before very long, Namiq would unwittingly become Hussein’s butler, chef, confidant, secretary, housekeeper, barber, bodyguard and messenger.

At one point, Namiq muses on camera whether he should fulfill another role – that of match-maker – believing a wife would be better suited to intimate tasks such as washing Hussein in a bathtub, which we see as a reenactment.

After spending 11 years bringing this remarkable story to the big screen, Norwegian-Kurdish filmmaker Halkawt Mustafa today quips: “It could just as easily be called Hiding a Film.”

Mustafa had already begun his mission to learn the identity of the person who had hidden Hussein for almost eight months when the Washington Post first revealed Namiq’s name in 2012.

But then Mustafa would spend a further year trying to find where Namiq was living after fleeing Iraq, culminating in an intense four day meeting in Istanbul.

Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for The Red Sea International Film Festival

“In the beginning, I just had one real question. I wanted to know who made the hole. Because for me, only one person can tell this story and it is the one who made the hole,” he recalls.

“By day three, we were fighting because I am a Kurdish escapee from Iraq because of Saddam Hussein’s regime and power, while Alaa was looking at Saddam Hussein as his president and king. We fought and he was also very scared of how the image of Saddam Hussein would come out. But finally, he understood that I’m not looking at Saddam Hussein, the former president. I am looking for the story behind the hole,” says Mustafa, who miraculously persuaded Alaa to refrain from selling his story to a newspaper or TV news show.

“When I met Alaa, I was thinking what an impossible situation it must have been for him, and how difficult it was to hide him. It would be the same if you had Hitler show up as your guest. What should you say? ‘No thanks’. ‘Yes thanks’. ‘How long will you stay?’

“It was a lot for Alaa to take on, which is why he tried, in the end, to find a wife for him because it was too much.

“And then, of course, how can he find a wife for someone who has150,000 US soldiers looking for him? So, Alaa became a part of something really difficult, and also then not knowing how it was going to end. He could have escaped, yes. But he had a family too. Also, how do you escape from Saddam Hussein?” he says of Namiq, who – after Hussein’s discovery in his backyard – was also imprisoned in the infamous Abu Ghraib, where he says he was tortured for four months.

After Mustafa’s original meeting with Namiq, then the real hard work began during which the director spent thousands of hours intensely fact-checking everything Namiq told him, verifying information of 3,000 archived documents.

“We made a calendar from 22 April to 13 December for every single day, when Alaa was Hussein’s only connection to the outside world,” he says.

Once this was completed, Mustafa would seek financing and then finally travel to Iraq to shoot the film near Namiq’s actual farm in Tikrit, ultimately visiting Iraq on 24 occasions.

“This was probably the most scary part of the entire process, because we wanted to film close to Alaa’s actual farm, but ISIS had taken over the territory in 2014. Everyone remembers those terrible beheading photos, and I didn’t want to risk anyone’s life just because we wanted to make a documentary. Also, there was the problem of: how do you make a movie without not sharing information with someone?” asks the director who was determined to keep the project under wraps.

“From the very beginning, when we were talking to Alaa, there were no telephones or computers in the room. We wanted to make sure he was safe – and still do today,” he says of Namiq who is still in hiding.

At the Red Sea Festival – where international media casually rub shoulders with global movie stars – it was Namiq who improbably became the rock star of the event, people stopping him for autographs and selfies.

In fact, Hiding Saddam Hussein is already such a buzzy documentary that David Seidler, the British-American playwright who wrote Oscar winner The Kings Speech, is now teaming with Mustafa to make a feature film about Alaa and Hussein.

Mustafa is delighted at the prospect of working with Sidler on the script, with a view to directing the film himself. “I think David has already experienced a similar dynamic of king and servant with The King’s Speech. And then also, how the power is changing as Alaa becomes more and more important in the end. I think in the format of a drama, we will have the opportunity to play more.

“The most important thing I learned, is how patient you need to be to tell your story,” he says in something of an understatement.

“And it’s not only telling his story, but humanising him and seeing the story from his perspective. We’ve always seen Saddam Hussein as the dictator, the powerful president. But then you see the king losing his power, and then it’s about balance as Alaa takes over,” he says.

Through Alaa’s experience as an Iraqi man tasked with hiding his country’s former leader, Mustafa says he has learned more about himself.

“Alaa was born in Iraq and lived with Hussein as his president. That’s his story from this perspective. But I was also curious about my own identity. Why we escaped from Iraq via Syria to Norway when I was kid? And, according to my father, the simple reason why we left was because of Saddam Hussein, so it was fascinating to see this from our two different perspectives,” he says.