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Sydney Film Festival

Iraq's shattered dreams

Dan Edwards experiences Mohamed Al-Daradji’s Ahlaam

Ahlaam Ahlaam
Great political films don’t express one-dimensional certainties, but rather explore the complexities of life under various systems of power. They are both specific in what they tell us about a particular time and place, and universal in their exploration of human-made suffering. It’s too early to say whether Mohamed Al-Daradji’s Ahlaam will join the ranks of great political films, but its depiction of contemporary Iraq reveals a specific reality of unimaginable misery, while also making a more general point about the nightmarish consequences of arbitrary, absolute power.

The film shares more than a little ground with another classic tale of human endurance under conditions of war and oppression—Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). Like Rossellini’s Neorealist classic, Ahlaam was shot on location in the immediate aftermath of war, with the cast and crew living very much in the shadow of ongoing violence and fear. The title translates as ‘Dreams’, an ironic comment on the shattering of Iraqi people’s lives and hopes, and a level of daily horror in post-war Iraq so extreme it has taken on an almost surreal quality. But while the tribulations of the population in Rome, Open City are underpinned by a belief that they are fighting for a better world, Ahlaam contains no such consolation, illustrating a key difference between 1945 and our contemporary situation. Ahlaam offers no political or philosophical redemption for the suffering we witness on screen; the ‘liberators’ here are as ethically and philosophically bankrupt as the government they are displacing.

Director Mohamed Al-Daradji returned to Iraq in the wake of the US-led ‘liberation’ having fled his homeland following the murder of his politically active cousin in 1995. He was deeply disturbed by what he witnessed in post-war Baghdad, particularly the sight of numerous psychiatric patients wandering the streets, their hospitals destroyed in the US bombing. It was his experiences assisting a friend to round up some of these patients that inspired the story of Ahlaam.

The film begins in a Baghdad psychiatric hospital the night US forces begin pounding the city in preparation for their invasion. Bombs rain silently from the sky, racking the city with concussive explosions. Two hospital patients—a man and a woman—pace their cells with fear and gaze at the flames from their barred windows. As the electricity fails and the building is plunged into darkness, a young doctor attempts to calm the patients and restore power.

From this opening the film travels back in time to trace the paths that brought these 3 characters together. Their tales traverse a range of class and social divisions, but each one’s life is marred by the brutality of the Ba’thist regime. The least developed story concerns Doctor Medhi, whose university career is interrupted when his application for postgraduate study is refused due to his dead father’s communist affiliations and he is conscripted into the Iraqi army.

The second narrative strand focuses on Ali, the male patient we see fearfully sinking into his bed as the bombs fall on Baghdad in the opening scene. Like Doctor Medhi, he is an ex-draftee, formerly posted to a desert outpost near the Syrian border. We see him on leave in pre-war Baghdad, and journeying back to his post with a neurotic friend and fellow soldier. Ali and his comrade dislike military life and are appalled by the cruelties of the military police, who keep a watchful eye over the army of mostly reluctant conscripts. His friend talks of desertion, but Ali argues that sitting out their service and the Ba’thist regime is a less risky option.

Radio news broadcasts form an aural backdrop to the quiet of their desert outpost. From one of these we learn UN weapons inspectors have been expelled from the country. Soon after, Ali and his friend sit on the ground eating their evening meal. Ali rises to make tea, stepping into a small bunker to boil some water, the peaceful quiet of the desert hanging heavy over the scene. The calm sense of waiting is deliberately protracted, not to build tension—there’s a bleak sense of inevitability about what is to come—but to illustrate the remorseless logic of the game that the Iraqi, US and British governments are engaged in. Men in safe, faraway capitals engaged in a war of words, while violence rains down on ordinary people caught up in the machinations of global power play.

When the strike finally comes, it’s sudden and almost without sound; the ground trembles and Ali is deafened by a blast, his hearing returning only as a muffled rumble overlaid with piercing tinnitus. He stumbles from the bunker into a landscape suddenly plunged into night. The camp is strewn with men cut in half or missing limbs; his comrade lies riddled with shrapnel. He picks up his friend’s limp body and stumbles into the desert, walking for hours until he is tackled by a jeep load of military police and arrested for desertion. Confused, deaf and utterly shell-shocked he is sentenced to mutilation and incarceration in a psychiatric institution by a military court. In one of the film’s most horrific scenes, the terrified Ali is strapped down and his ear severed without the use of anaesthetic, before he is cast into a hospital for the insane. Nothing in the film conveys the brutality inflicted on the Iraqi people by the Ba’thist regime quite like this sequence of swift and arbitrary ‘justice.’

Ahlaam’s third narrative strand centres on the title character, a young woman we see living an apparently idyllic life in pre-war Baghdad. She spends much of her time with her fiancee, dreaming of their future life together. He is an opposition activist, however, and their wedding is rudely interrupted by plain-clothed police dragging him from the celebration. Ahlaam is left sobbing in the dust. She is still wearing her dress when we see her in the hospital—a mocking reminder of the ordinary life she once imagined for herself and her husband.

Al-Daradji’s film is unflinching in its depiction of the reality of life in Saddam’s Iraq, but circumstances actually worsen when the story returns to the present and the psychiatric hospital is struck by a US bomb. The patients stumble through holes in the walls into a city that has gone from a state of repression to one of violent anarchy. Looters pillage shops and homes, and gunmen roam the streets. Into this scene come the first American troops, waving their rifles in the face of every Iraqi they meet and barking orders like parodies of professional soldiers. The bewildered patients endure abuse, rape and sniper fire as they roam a cityscape devoid of compassion, dignity or hope. In this chaotic environment Doctor Medhi’s efforts to protect his patients and treat them with some degree of kindness come to nothing.

Ahlaam concludes on an utterly despairing note, but the film is not a condemnation of any one group or even one specific war—it is a deeply affecting cry of pain from a people who have been bombed, betrayed, abused and had every atrocity imaginable perpetrated upon them. The film allows no position of observance, or emotional or intellectual distance. It is not a piece of analysis. It makes every viewer live through this trauma to force them to ask how this could happen.

The film’s pessimism was no doubt sharpened by the conditions under which it was made—conditions that directly reflected the situations dramatised on screen. The cast and crew were unable to travel anywhere in Baghdad without an armed escort, and one of the policemen providing protection was killed during filming. Despite the police presence, members of the crew, including the director, were kidnapped by Ba’thists during the shoot and were beaten and threatened with execution before being handed over to the Americans for a week’s Abu-Ghraib style “interrogation” (to quote the director). The 18-year-old sound recordist was shot in the leg during the initial abduction and the director’s 15-year-old cousin (and the film’s boom operator) has allegedly suffered long-term mental problems from the abuse and humiliation he suffered at the hands of US forces. In the final credits we are informed that the actor playing Ahlaam’s father was killed soon after shooting was completed.

Ahlaam is an unrelentingly harrowing experience, but it is redeemed from charges of excess by its grounding in a reality that is beamed into our lounge-rooms every night. It is an important film not only because it confronts us with the depravity of a conflict whose duration and sheer awfulness has rendered most of us numb, but also because it serves as a warning about the potentially apocalyptic end point of our current global political course.Ahlaam, writer/director/producer Mohamed Al-Daradji; producer Atea Al-Daradji, performers Aseel Adel, Bashir Al-Majid, Mohamed Hashim, Iraq/UK/Netherlands; 53rd Sydney Film Festival

Details of Ahlaam’s production were taken from the author’s email correspondence with the director.

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 22

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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