Mohamed Al-Daradji talked with Ed Stocker
‘I just want to make films – I’m a filmmaker, not an insurgent or a soldier.’ Mohamed Al-Daradji’s sentiments are normal enough; he’s a director after all. But when it comes to making movies in his Iraqi homeland, it’s never an easy task. Reports of kidnappings, suicide bombs and violent confrontations have long been the mainstay of news programmes that beam back reports to a largely numb Western hemisphere. But what if there were another Iraq? An Iraq where, against all the odds, something positive was taking place? Striving to show an alternative vision of his country, Al-Daradji is at the forefront of the push to re-establish the arts within Iraq and to stimulate a cinema industry that once ranked amongst the most established in the Arab world.
Take a stroll through movie history and there are plenty of flicks wrapped in a cloak of intrigue, inflated by tales of mysterious happenings and dangerous liaisons. But nothing can compare with Al-Daradji’s experiences filming his first feature in Baghdad in 2004. The 31-year-old’s normally animated face glazes over when asked about the shoot. ‘It was not easy,’ he confides. ‘There was no electricity, no petrol, no money, no food and sometimes no place to stay in the desert [where we filmed].’
His city had shape-shifted beyond all recognition in the decade that he’d been in Europe – first in Holland as a film studies student and then Leeds, England, where he completed a Masters and set up a production company. Seeing the crumbling buildings, grieving families and lawless society affected him deeply. ‘It was shocking – it hit me hard seeing the change,’ he says. ‘This was not the city that I had left.’ And he was about to experience the lawlessness first-hand.
On 17 December 2004 Al-Daradji and his crew were surrounded by armed militia, lined up against a wall near the Tigris river and accused of being puppets of the interim government and US military. Al-Daradji thought he was about to die – his crew had been badly beaten and his sound man shot in the legs – but a whir of police sirens scared off the attackers (Al-Daradji calls it a ‘miracle of God’). At the hospital they aroused the suspicion of a guard who handed them over to a Shi’a militia, working with the Americans. They were then interrogated for 10 hours before being passed on to US troops. ‘There was an Army general,’ Al-Daradji says, piecing together the chain of events. ‘I asked him to contact the Dutch embassy or the coalition force who knew about me. Then he hit me saying, “Shut up, you fucking Al-Qaeda; shut up, you fucking insurgent”.’ Al-Daradji and his production team were detained for five days until the Dutch embassy negotiated their release.
There were other incidents – one of the armed security guards protecting them was killed at a checkpoint minutes before they arrived. But Al-Daradji refused to back down. The result was Ahlaam (Dreams) a fictional drama about two patients in a mental asylum and the doctor that cares for them, based on real experiences. Footage skips from 2003, on the eve of the American strikes to topple Saddam Hussein, to the same three protagonists five years earlier. It’s a bold, mature piece of cinema about the horrors of war and the everyday people affected by it. Al-Daradji’s films abhor violence but he insists they don’t try to preach politics. ‘I never speak about politics,’ he says. ‘But of course you see my political point of view through the human element.’
And it’s the ‘human element’ that Al-Daradji wants cinema audiences to take away with them. When we meet, the director has just returned from six months in Iraq filming his latest work, Son of Babylon. The movie, again set in 2003, is about a Kurdish grandmother who travels through Iraq with her grandson in search of her soldier son, missing since Iraqi troops withdrew from Kuwait 12 years earlier. Whereas Ahlaam is a bleak and deeply shocking neo-realist film, Al-Daradji says there are glimpses of hope in this latest offering. ‘When you see Son of Babylon you’ll be like “Wow! This is not Iraq”,’ he laughs. ‘All the people who saw the rough cut said that.’ Why? ‘Because it’s different from the Iraq you see on the news. It’s a human Iraq.’
Al-Daradji is passionate about the future of his country. He talks with regret about the decline of the once buoyant state-controlled Iraqi film industry, lamenting the pitiful cinema audiences and ubiquitous pirate DVDs selling on street corners in today’s Baghdad. But there’s clearly local interest. In April 2007 more than 3,000 people came to see Ahlaam when he screened it at the capital’s National Theatre. ‘It was a huge success,’ he says proudly. ‘They applauded the film about 25 times during the screening.’ The director plans to nurture further the rebirth of interest in film by touring the country with a mobile cinema later in the year, showing the handful of Iraqi films that have been made since 2003.
But it’s when he’s shooting a film that he provides the greatest inspiration to young Iraqis wanting to follow in his footsteps. Employing an all-Iraqi crew of trainees, he uses the occasion for hands-on teaching. ‘They work and we teach them at the same time,’ he explains. ‘So sometimes we stop shooting and explain to them why we do something, they ask questions and at the weekend we have a meeting and talk about it.’ He’s also brought in Canadian and European directors to provide further training and organized a series of workshops in Jordan. Al-Daradji says three Iraqi films are scheduled this year alone, and there are other active directors – based in Europe, where the majority of their funding comes from – such as Oday Rasheed and Qusim Abd.
There’s a restless energy and determination about Al-Daradji and he insists there are many more stories about the Iraqi people that an international audience must see. ‘Iraq needs a lot of films; there are so many stories that each Iraqi could potentially make 10 films. Imagine if 28 million people made films?’ With him at the helm, we might just get to see them.
Ahlaam (Dreams) was released on DVD in April 2009 (see the film review in NI 422). It won the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award in 2008.
Son of Babylon will be shown at film festivals later this year and released in 2010.