Son of Babylon (Iraq/UK/Fra/NL/Palestine/UAE/Egypt 2009)

The gateway to Baghdad

I’ve been trying for some time to catch this film which was produced out of Yorkshire with partners in several other countries. I was lucky to find it showing as part of the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival in July and with an accompanying Q&A with director Mohamed Al Daradji and producer Isabelle Stead. The only drawback was that distributors Dogwoof  had sent a DVD instead of a 35mm print to the 500 seat Hebden Bridge Picturehouse. The result was that a film shot on 35mm looked dark and pixellated on the big screen. Following a similar experience with Dogwoof’s Amreeka, I’m getting a bit cross with this practice. However, the usual healthy Hebden Bridge audience didn’t seem to have too many problems with the film and I didn’t have the heart to ask the director what he thought of the crappy image on screen after months spent carefully filming in Iraq. (Ironically, his company hires out their 35mm camera equipment to make much needed revenue.)

Mohamed Al Daradji was, as he told us, born in a poor part of Baghdad. He trained as a filmmaker in Hilversum in the Netherlands and in Leeds where he later founded Human Film (which also has a presence in the Netherlands and in Iraq). He was actually making his first film Ahlaam (Dreams) (2006) in Baghdad when he had the idea for Son of Babylon. The film has a very simple story. 12 year-old Ahmed travels with his grandmother, south from the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq to Baghdad in 2003 in search of his father Ibrahim who has been missing since the Gulf War in 1991. From Baghdad they travel on to a prison and then further south to check the mass graves that are being opened in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Al Daradji, in a Q&A downloadable from the Human Film website, has spoken about the influence of both Rossellini and Italian neo-realism in the late 1940s as well as more recent Iranian Cinema on his work in Iraq. I was certainly struck by the Rossellini comparisons and by the similarities between the Baghdad street scenes and images of Afghanistan in the work of the Makhmalbafs. Following the neo-realist approach, Al Daradji searched for non-actors for all the roles in the film. He filmed on location in six different Iraqi cities and took his story from ‘contemporary life’ or “from the world” as Rossellini suggested. The whole process was extremely difficult, not least because of the problems in getting footage sent back to the West for processing. Not surprisingly, Al Daradji says that he formed a close bond with his actors, especially the young boy whom he has since ‘mentored’.

The neo-realist approach has also caused other problems. The film’s ending is bleak – just like the prospects for many Iraqis. There is no attempt to fictionalise the ending by hinting at an optimistic future for the boy. Instead, the narrative effectively ends with the facts about the numbers of ‘missing’ in Iraq. This includes not only the 1 million and more lost in the three wars since 1980 but also the more than 150,000 since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The filmmakers have set up a campaign group with a UK base and charitable status: Iraq’s Missing Campaign. They have also started a petition which you can sign online. The website suggests many other ways to help – including help in promoting the film and I’m certainly willing to do that (but please persuade Dogwoof to get their act together!). Either of the two websites above will lead you to information on the film and the campaign.

I found the film gripping but painful to watch. The poor quality of the image in this particular screening means that I can’t comment on whether a more ‘beautiful’ image would have an effect on how an audience responds. The lack of a ‘happy ending’ is not a concern of course but there are always going to be questions about how to handle the emotional response that films like this generate. The filmmakers have attempted to channel that emotion into support for their campaign and that seems the right thing to do.

I have no direct knowledge of Iraq and therefore took what was offered at face value. However, after the screening I met a friend who was in Baghdad in 2003 (in a humanitarian aid capacity, I think). She pointed out that the street scenes shot in 2008 did not really represent how Baghdad looked in 2003 – in particular, the women in 2003 were dressed in much brighter clothing and were not routinely ‘covered’ to the same extent. If this is true it does undermine some aspects of the presentation. My friend also commented on the Kurdish elements of the story, suggesting that there were problems in giving the audience information about Kurdish culture in an artificial way in the dialogue. I don’t think that there is much that could be done about this – the audience for the film in the West would probably be lost without some explanation of Kurdish history. However, it does raise an interesting question about any assumptions we might have about Iraqi culture and the position of a distinctive separate community within the country. Al Daradji himself is an ‘outsider’ in terms of the Kurdish community and his discussions with his actors involved considerable amounts of translation. Of course, it would be good to know what the Kurds in Iraq thought about the film. Al Daradji was able to tell us about the screenings he held in the country (which now is without functioning cinemas as such) and unsurprisingly they were very well received. You can read about the screening in Baghdad in a Guardian interview and the film has I think now been shown in other parts of Iraq using mobile cinema kit.

A DVD release accompanied the film into UK cinemas and I’d urge you to rent or buy the DVD (or watch it online) and support the campaign.

Production Notes and more on the film from Dogwoof.

Cinema has an important role to play in telling stories like these from a personal perspective. Al Daradji has said that he feels that his film offers a distinctively alternative view of Iraq to those of the US/UK broadcast media.

The official trailer for the film:

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