It tends to be frustratingly hard to describe pre-2003 Iraq to non-Iraqis as my portrayal always seems inadequate. The lived and shared experience relayed through friends and family over the years is rich in absurdity, suffering and sorrow but I struggle to put all this into words.
So I felt a good deal of gratitude after watching this film, as for once, a production did not get caught up in geopolitics, sectarianism or war but rather focused on the human story that I find so hard to portray.
The basic plot revolves around an elderly Kurdish lady and her grandson off to search for her missing son (his father) shortly after the fall of the Baath regime. Their journey takes them through Baghdad, to Nasiriyah and the rest of the South, navigating through the turmoil of a collapsed state, an occupation, a precarious infrastructure and much more.
Mohammed Al-Daradji‘s film is an exercise in subtlety as the backdrop to this story is elegantly weaved in without affecting the main story. We glimpse American soldiers barking out nervously at checkpoints, we notice the signs of destruction and get a fleeting glance at some post-war score-settling – All mere sideshows to the human story of Iraq frequently lost behind the politics and 24-hour news footage.
Strangers hindered by a language barrier, the pair find common ground with the suffering shared by ordinary Iraqis they meet along the way. Furthermore, their journey is made possible through the kindness of strangers reaching out beyond the sectarian and ethnic divides that have characterised post-Saddam Iraq. A point made maybe out hope or of a subsequent lost opportunity.
Their belief in finding their son/father alive easily edged into fantasy like the mythical Hanging gardens of Babylon that crops up in the film from time to time but it is this futile hope that drives them and others on in this oppressively setting.
The introduction of Musa and the ensuing redemption sub-plot adds another welcome dimension to the story but I felt this was not explored deeply enough. The latter part of the film seemed to peter out a bit, dwelling slightly too long in places before a rather abrupt ending.
Beautifully directed and powerfully understated, this is truly one of the best films to come out of the recent turmoil in Iraq. The emerging talent that is Mohammed Al-Dardji is definitely one to keep an eye on in the coming years.