SIFF 2010: Mohamed Al Daradji has arrived

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 26, 2010]

What are film festivals and film critics good for? Well, for one thing, discovering and boosting new or under-appreciated talent. And don’t discount the power of such visual and verbal exposure: that’s precisely how a little film called The Hurt Locker stole the Oscar out from under the nose of James Cameron’s massively promoted blockbuster Avatar! So by introducing fledgling artists from all around the world to mainstream American audiences, SIFF’s Emerging Masters program can do some real good for cinema while striking a blow in the ongoing battle against this country’s cultural parochialism.

This year’s slate of Emerging Masters includes Mohamed Al Daradji (Iraq-Netherlands), Ana Kokkinos (Australia) and Valery Todorovsky (Russia). In the coming week, two films by Al Daradji will be screened: Ahlaam and Son of Babylon, both powerful testaments to the suffering of ordinary Iraqis, caught between dictators and invaders.

After studying theater direction in Baghdad, in 1995 Al Daradji moved to the Netherlands where he worked as a cameraman. Later he earned a degree in cinematography in England, going on to make many short films and commercials before returning to Iraq in 2003. While the war dragged on, Al Daradji filmed Ahlaam under incredibly difficult circumstances. Lack of equipment and electricity, the near-impossibility of finding a Muslim actress to play a victim of rape, kidnapping by Iraqi insurgents, detention by the American military — everything conspired to block the completion of the shoot. (Al Daradji chronicles the making of Ahlaam in his documentary, War, Love, God and Madness.)

Ahlaam intertwines the stories of three Iraqis, two of whom are destroyed by the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s rule and the subsequent American invasion. The medical career of the third falls under a cloud, thanks to the communist leanings of his father, executed by the Ba’athists. A soldier in the Republican Army, Ali (Basher Al-Majidi) possesses the face of a Goya martyr and way too much empathy for his fellow man. Ahlaam (“dreams” in Arabic) may spend time in the classroom, but the light in her lovely face shines only for her fiancée Ahmed. Fragile souls, Ali and Ahlaam (Aseel Adil) end up in a mental hospital, their sanity shattered by sudden, catastrophic loss. When bombs rain down on Baghdad in 2003, the inmates escape into the dangerous streets. Dr. Mehdi (Mohamed Hashim), our blacklisted medic, searches the city, a madhouse in its own right, trying to bring his charges back to the safety of his asylum.

A feature filmmaking tyro, working against daunting odds, Al Daradji delivers a surprisingly powerful film. But he doesn’t quite have a handle on how to merge these diverse stories organically and compellingly. Initially, he cuts from Ali to Ahlaam to Mehdi haphazardly, just to establish backstories; we don’t always learn anything new that couldn’t have come elsewhere and earlier. Often, individual scenes go long or short to no particular end: most especially, Ahlaam’s via dolorosa through urban hell drags on so long we begin to detach out of sheer exhaustion. The one-note characters, their striking faces projecting permanent pain and despair, can’t help but touch our hearts. But, absent evolving human complexity, they are almost reduced to advertisements for misery.

Critical cavils aside, Al Daradji, who photographed as well as wrote, directed and produced Ahlaam, frames shots straight out of surreal nightmare: a shell-shocked soldier staggering through a desert wasteland, brought to his knees by the weight of the corpse he carries. A mental patient waking on a gurney in the bombed-out room where she’s just convulsed with electro-shock treatments. Overhead shots, from a sniper’s POV, of a burning Baghdad street where a half-naked man and a girl in a ruined wedding dress have lost their way — and minds — forever.

Such unforgettable imagery also graces Son of Babylon, Al Daradji’s latest, much more polished film. An old Kurdish woman (Shazada Hussein) and her grandson (Yasser Talib) travel southward through Iraq in search of son and father, a soldier arrested long years earlier in one of Saddam Hussein’s purges. Their harrowing walkabout takes them through an unlovely country, vast and full of ruins, where getting from one place to another is always problematic and danger is omnipresent. The Iraqis these two innocents encounter along the way look to be venal, guilty, indifferent, but Al Daradji consistently finds a generosity and compassion in his people that divests them of their “foreignness,” so that we feel they might be us.

The performances are very strong. At first, it seems the grandmother has gone genderless, become a black robe whipped in the dusty wind, her cliff-face weathered and stoic. Yet she’s not just a Mother Courage icon; on the long road, we discover her idiosyncratic womanhood. The little boy, lively scion of once-civilized and powerful Babylon, may chafe at gram’s singlemindedness, but rarely wavers in his support of her futile quest. When she washes and dresses him in a white shirt to meet his long-lost father, it’s a ritual lovingly practiced and received. The two travel ever deeper into Iraqi’s dreadful history, from one mass grave to another, attended by a chorus of black-clad wailing women, bone-collectors.

As in Ahlaam, the landscape in Son of Babylon grows ever more surreal, as though Al Daradji can only tell the story of his wounded homeland through nightmare. “A lot of my culture is based on revenge not forgiveness,” says the director. “It is not easy to forgive. So, what I am asking is for us to talk about the past, not forget it. But we need the power to forgive.”