Iraq in Venice (BBC1)

A documentary on contemporary Iraqi artists gives Rachel Cooke hope.

Is Alan Yentob aware how . . . bumbling he looks beside the BBC's other arts presenters, most of whom seem to have a lot more zing than him,
if not a great deal more insight? Maybe not. But surely even he must realise that viewers are bound to notice that while he's happy to swan around Venice and its ludicrous biennale - here's another dumb Jeff Koons sculpture coming right up! - he is apparently more reluctant to visit Kurdistan, home of one of the artists who starred in his Imagine film about the Iraqi pavilion at said biennale.

I think that if you're going to make a film about this subject - the way that war and exile have fashioned the sensibilities of six Iraqi artists - then the least you can do is pay tribute to their bravery by getting on a plane yourself. After all, Kurdistan is relatively safe. Yentob's parents were Iraqi immigrants, and yet it is a country he has never visited. It would have been touching to see him standing before the roaring Gali Ali Beg waterfall, as featured on Iraq's 5,000-dinar banknote.

Oh, well. I mustn't allow myself to get side­tracked by the mischievous business of gently (and fondly, I hasten to add) taking the mickey out of Mr Yentob. As Imagine documentaries go, Iraq in Venice (26 July, 10.35pm) was a good one: for once, it brought new names to our attention rather than dishing up an extended hagiography about someone with whom we are already rather too familiar. The story went like this. An American curator and an Iraqi artist in exile in Italy teamed up to create an Iraqi pavilion at the 2011 biennale. It was a task at once surprisingly straightforward (there are plenty of Iraqi-born contemporary artists at work, notably the New York-based Ahmed al-Sudani, whose paintings fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds at auction) and hugely complex (the Iraqi government, unsurprisingly, has better things on which to spend its limited funds than putting on an art show, with the result that the budget was so small, the curator and her six artists had the benefit, while hanging their work, of only one, very battered stepladder).

Would they pull it off? Yes, you knew they would. The surprise came in the super­lative quality of their effort and, on occasion, in their personal stories. Halim al-Karim, an artist who now lives between Denver and Dubai, had, as a young man, spent several years living in a hole in the Iraqi desert, the better to avoid conscription into Saddam Hussein's army, then fighting a futile war against Iran. His tale, which he related painstakingly, in a voice deliberately empty of emotion, rather puts the well-rehearsed travails of Tracey Emin in­to perspective.

Suffering does not in itself produce great art; nor does great art necessarily soothe those who have suffered (though, my God, it can help; see J L Carr's beautiful novel A Month in the Country, in which a soldier returns from the First World War trenches and is redeemed by a fresco). Al-Karim's work - it involved fuzzy photographs of beautiful and sometimes veiled women - did nothing for me. Ditto al-Sudani's chaotic oil paintings.
But there was real beauty and meaning in Ali Assaf's installations: the elegant old studio portraits of the family he left behind; the pyramid he built of dates from Basra, his home town (Basra once had 30 million date palms, until Saddam decided to cut them down).

Best of all, however, was Walid Siti's Beauty Spot. Siti, who works in Hackney but comes from near Erbil in Kurdistan, reproduced Iraq's 5,000-dinar note on a grand scale, so that it ­covered one wall of the Iraqi pavilion, a crumbling house in the Arsenale. Only, where the image of Gali Ali Beg should have been, he had a cut a giant hole, through which you could see a film of the waterfall.

Siti was making a point about water and his country's shameful waste of it. In the summer, when the fall runs dry, the government pumps in water so that the local attraction never loses its appeal for tourists. But, for me, it worked as a symbol of hope. On and on it roared. There was just no stopping it.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right