It was a radio report in 2003 about the discovery of mass graves in Babylon that started the whole thing off. Mohamed Al-Daradji was shooting his first feature AHLAMM in Baghdad, and the news stopped him in his tracks. “I thought of my auntie who was always crying, who had lost her son – his name is Ali – during the Iranian War,” Al-Daradji states. “When I was a child I asked her all the time why she was always crying.” So, inspired by his relationship with his aunt, Al-Daradji decided to make a film that binded two generations of Iraqis, one steeped in terrible suffering, the other defined by a hope for the future.
SON OF BABYLON follows a Kurdish mother and her grandson Ahmed who set off on foot from the north of Iraq to the south in search of her missing son, and Ahmed’s missing father. The film, shot entirely on location in Iraq, is both lyrical and deeply moving as the boy begins to realise the extent of the atrocities that his country has, and continues to, suffer. Eventually the pair arrive at the mass graves of Babylon, destined for disappointment but changed by the experience.
“I leave the ending to the audience to see whether it is optimistic or not,” Al-Daradji stresses. “For me it is happy. The little boy grows up – he turns into a man. He plays the music on his father’s flute at the end of the film – he was pushing it away at the beginning. He throws his father’s army jacket away and wants to be more the music. He was the one at the beginning fighting with the people, but by the end of the film he makes peace between his grandmother and the Republican Guard Musa. It is not necessary to apply a happy ending when we see a really big change - I don’t kid myself about that reality - but I’m happy because there is hope, because I make the boy the future for me , for Iraq, for a lot of people.”
A campaign to identify Iraq’s missing people, thought to number over 1.5 million over the past forty years, evolved as a result of Al-Daradji’s and producer Isabel Stead’s inability to source accurate figures from the UN to use within the film. “We were waiting six months without getting any clear information, so we made a campaign,” he points out. “But we also promised our main actress [Shehzad Hussein], a normal woman who lost her husband of 22 years and never found him, a woman who never wanted to work on the film - she doesn’t care about cinema, she is uneducated - that maybe we can do something for her husband, for her life, to get information by showing this film and encouraging organisations towards it.”
After its world premiere at Berlinale 2010, the film picked up Berlin’s Amnesty Award and Peace Prize, the NETPAC Award at Karlovy Vary, a special mention at Edinburgh and a selection as Iraq’s entry for the 2011 Academy Award for Foreign-language film. “When we announced the campaign at the Berlin Film Festival the Prime Minister of Iraq made a speech live from Baghdad to Berlin after the screening,” he states. “He does not support the film, but he supports the campaign. The reaction was fantastic. 25,000 people have signed the petition over the past six months.”
“And now I am proud,” continues the Netherlands-based Al-Daradji. “I am a refugee who came to Holland fifteen years ago, with one pair of trousers, dirty clothes and one pair of shoes. I will tell myself this on the 30th of September when my film closes the Netherlands Film Festival, and I will tell that to my family. I am proud of Holland that gave me this great energy and this great opportunity to find myself - that is really important for me.”
Al-Daradji has just completed IN MY MOTHER’S ARMS, a documentary about 32 children who live in a one bedroom house in downtown Baghdad, and their struggle to survive. The film world premiered at San Sebastian 2010. “All are the victims of the war, and their parents have been killed either by the Americans or the suicide bombs, or the sectarian violence,” he comments. “The film is about how these children can survive among all this chaos.”
At this year’s Netherlands Production Platform Al-Daradji discussed his new project THE TRAIN STATION. The film begins 90 seconds after a female suicide bomber has blown herself up, along with 28 other people, at Baghdad train station. This is the moment when she begins to reflect on the enormity of what she has just done. “In Islam the most important thing is the 90 seconds after you have died, when the angel comes to take your soul and take your body from the earth,” he comments. “This is the most difficult moment, and at this point I’m trying to open the mind of this suicide bomber. What the film will tell is that she wants to turn back the clock and not to have done what she did because I let her meet all of her victims.”
The film will be difficult, Al-Daradji concedes, and audiences may be confused by a sympathetic portrayal of somebody who sets out to kill so many people. “Maybe by the end of the film I will not give you the answer,” he underlines. “I do not like a lazy audience who want to have everything fed to them. I want them to think with me and engage with the film that I will make.”
He believes, nevertheless, that he does not make political films, that it is always the human element within Iraq that he is dealing with. “We don’t want to make propaganda films,” he insists. “There are no statements. I let the audience decide, based upon how the characters live and survive. The politics is never on the table. When you see THE TRAIN STATION, nobody will say anything about politics or Al-Qaeda or anything regarding Islam or the Americans. No, you don’t see that. You see how she got to this point. Politics I leave to the news and political documentaries.”