Saturday, December 17, 2011

Three Films by Mohamed Al-Daradji

The following three films from Iraqi director Mohamed Al-Daradji all take place in 2003, the pivotal year in which Iraq's history changed drastically.

Ahlaam (2006)
War, Love, God & Madness (2008)
Son of Babylon (2009)

The core of Ahlaam takes place after the American invasion but the film goes as far back as 1998 when Iraq was bogged down by sanctions. Back in 1998, the title character of Ahlaam (Aseel Adel) was on the verge of marriage while Hasan (Kaheel Khalid) was having doubts about staying in the army because he didn’t believe in serving Saddam. Mehdi (Mohamed Hashim) was troubled because his father’s past would stand in the way of him going for higher studies. These characters lives was clearly not great to begin with but their plight gets worse as the film moves along. Ahlaam’s marriage is ruined because her fiancée is taken away by the Iraqi police. She is pushed to the ground which subsequently damages her mind, eventually landing her in a mental hospital. The lack of order after the invasion causes the looters to move into that mental hospital forcing all the patients, including Ahlaam, out on the unsafe streets of Baghdad. As the film shows, most people suffered from poverty while living under the oppressive regime of Saddam. However, things got subsequently worse after the bombs started to fall in 2003 as the locals had to deal with extra problems such as looting, lack of electricity and water. The chaos and looting that spread like wildfire in 2003 causes the lives of the main characters in Ahlaam to spin further out of control. Ahlaam's fate is unresolved at the film’s end, but it is clear that it can’t be hopeful.

The documentary War, Love, God & Madness depicts the struggles and challenges in the making of Ahlaam. In 2003, Mohamed Al-Daradji and his crew entered Iraq posing as journalists (Al-Jazeera being the magic word) otherwise they feared their camera would be taken away. Once in Baghdad, Al-Daradji tried to find the only working film camera while recruiting local actors. He found it quite challenging to select a female lead especially since prospective leads backed out when they learned about the rape scene in Ahlaam. Things are further complicated when one of the crew members walked off suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Additionally, the lack of electricity and safety complicated the daily shoot schedule. Al-Daradji was on the verge of giving up and leaving Iraq but he ignored the advice of others around him and stayed to produce a sharp end product in Ahlaam despite all the stress and complications.

Son of Babylon is set a few weeks after the invasion of 2003 and starts off far away from the Iraqi capital. An older woman Um Ibrahim (Shazada Hussein) goes in search of her missing son when she learns that certain prisoners of war have been freed in Iraq. She take her grandson Ahmed (Yasser Talib) along as her missing son is Ahmed’s father.

Their road journey is not an easy one because the country is in a state of flux especially when horrific truths about the past are unearthed on a daily basis. One of the film’s most emotional sequences is when the traveling duo encounter a funeral procession of recently discovered buried bodies. There are no words spoken but Um Ibrahim’s silent expressions convey her worst fears about her son’s fate.

The film manages to showcase Iraq's vast and picturesque countryside, something hardly ever seen on screen.

Also the film depicts the challenges posed by the cultural and linguistic diversity of Iraq. Um Ibrahim is Kurdish but she cannot speak Arabic so she has to rely on her grandson for translation. People have enough problems to begin with so the language barrier only adds to their frustration and confusion. Yet, no matter what language an Iraqi speaks, they are united in their suffering. The ending of Son of Babylon is even more emotional than the one in Ahlaam but such films cannot have a happy ending, not especially when there are so many unresolved matters. The end credits in Son of Babylon lists that more than a million men, women and children have gone missing in Iraq in the last 40 years. By April 2009, more than 300 mass graves were found containing between 150,000 - 250,000 bodies. The remaining are still missing so there are countless stories waiting to be told about Iraq.

Transfer of suffering

Ahlaam and War, Love, God & Madness are about the suffering of the living. However, Son of Babylon shows that suffering does not end when someone dies. In fact, their suffering gets transferred to their living relatives. And in cases when relatives have no closure about a loved one, the next generation of family members start their lives burdened with a heavy dose of pain.

Smoke and Sounds

Ahlaam is a very well made film that smartly uses a grayish/dark palette to depict the chaos after the 2003 invasion. On the other hand, Son of Babylon is bright and vibrant yet most scenes feature smoke in the background thereby depicting the constant blowing up of things.

War, Love, God & Madness captures the sound of gunfire and bombing that locals have to endure on a daily basis. The documentary also features many conversations with locals in cafes and on the streets. In this regard, the film shares a bond with Sinan Antoon’s About Baghdad. It is quite fascinating to think that both Antoon and Al-Daradji were probably in Baghdad at the same time in 2003 filming their respective documentaries. Their films do feature a bit of hope because the locals believed that being rid of Saddam would eventually lead to a more happier life. It would be interesting if someone revisited the city now and interviewed the same people again because as bleak as things appeared in 2003, we now know that the coming years brought on more uncertainty.

The documentary title War, Love, God & Madness comes from an observation by a person that changing one letter in arabic transforms the word "war" into "love" and "God". That is a fascinating observation as wars are something that take place in the absence of love yet wars also take place in the name of God or if one side has too much love of their God. And when wars take place, madness is unleashed, thereby setting one on the path towards more wars.

Voices and Stories

There are plenty of books and films about Iraq yet very few of these works give an Iraqi perspective. One of the big reasons for lack of an Iraqi voice is because most of these works are based on experiences of western journalists who were living inside the Green Zone or embedded with foreign troops so their viewpoint was always a bit restricted. When these journalists went to meet the locals, they were accompanied by a translator or a bodyguard (soldier or private) and as a result, there were always filters and barriers which prevented a true Iraqi perspective from emerging. There are some exceptions such as James Longley’s incredible Iraq in Fragments which covers different parts of Iraq and outlines realistic problems facing the country. However, most films about Iraq hardly feature any Iraqis or are even shot in the country. Therefore, Mohamed Al-Daradji’s films are a pleasant surprize because they are shot entirely on location and manage to give voice to the local Iraqi people.

Mohamed Al- Daradji’s films are not made to collect box-office receipts or to win acclaim. Instead, they are made to depict essential human stories about citizens of a country the world has largely ignored even though the country name itself is regularly featured in headlines. These films won’t change the world but atleast it is good to know that there is still some relevant cinema out there that is not manufactured to win awards.

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