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"Son of Babylon," made — and, amazingly, screened — in Iraq, breaks the mold of recent war flicks.
BAGHDAD, Iraq — In a city without cinemas, in a country without movies, the impossible is happening. A tattered red carpet adorns the steps of a battered, gaudy facade in front of the long-defunct Semiramis cinema in Baghdad and cheerfully-dressed journalists, artists and intellectuals bustle past surly soldiers on the way to a movie premiere.
Although the event lacks breathless starlets, the director Mohamad al-Daradji is there, oozing star quality with gravity-defying hair and an Iraqi flag draped over his shoulders. Well might he feel triumphant; this is the first cinema screening of his film, "Son of Babylon," filmed in Iraq, using Iraqi actors and highlighting crucial issues for an Iraqi audience.
Daradji has moved mountains — and driven over roadside bombs — to achieve this, in a country still more at war than at peace. He has trained people to act and begged and scraped for funding.
The subject matter — Iraq's past and future — is a revelation in itself here, where reflection and planning often fall victim to the pressing concerns of getting through each day. Daradji's story of a boy and his grandmother in 2003 raises questions about how, and if, Iraq will come to terms with its brutal past in hopes of a brighter future.
The idea for the film came to Daradji in 2003, after the regime of Saddam Hussein fell to the American-led invading forces, briefly bringing freedom of movement and marking the end of a brutal time during which hundreds of thousands died.
"I heard on the radio," said Daradji, "that a mass grave was discovered in Babylon, and I thought of my aunt who lost her son in the Iran-Iraq war, and she was always crying."
The heroine of the film is a woman from Iraq's Kurdish northern region, which suffered hugely under the former regime. Her son disappeared after being forced to join the army in 1991 to fight Kuwait and was never seen again and so, three weeks after the invasion, she packs a bag and takes her grandson south to Babylon to hunt for her son in prisons and mass graves.
It makes grimly compelling viewing. The woman who plays the grandmother, Shazada Hussein, is a Kurdish villager who lost her husband in the 1990s, and she had never acted before. Suffering shows in every crease of her face.
The film is also a unique opportunity for viewers to see Iraq, as it really is. The dust, the militarization — blast walls, American Humvees, men with guns everywhere — the battered buses and the warm people with their hot tempers and terrible stories are all there.
The characters in the film take a journey that many think Iraq now needs to take itself, to excavate its war dead, to commemorate them and find a way toward justice and reconciliation that avoids violent revenge against the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime.
"I made the film to honor those who gave themselves for Iraq," said Daradji, calling on the Iraqi people, "to forgive and to work together as Iraqis to live in peace, because I believe that if we talk about the past and recognize the mistakes of the past, then we can have a good future."
The group that made the film is also campaigning to have the actions of the former regime, which killed swathes of Iraq's Kurdish population and others, recognized as genocide by the international community. They are working with the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), which is training Iraqi teams to identify bodies that have lain in mass graves since the 1980s and '90s.