A touch of Hollywood in Baghdad

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.

"Enforced disappearance," said John McCaskill, the Baghdad head of mission for ICMP, "takes away so much dignity from the victims, families and community. When you locate them and identify them so they can be buried it brings back some of the dignity that these families have lost and brings the families a sense of closure. At least they know what happened."

He added: "It's important for the world to know what happened, so that we don't repeat this."

Dealing with the past in Iraq is complicated. In the mazy politics of the recent elections, a de-Baathification committee whose work post-invasion was barring senior members of the former regime from positions of power, was resurrected under a new moniker, the Justice and Accountability Commission. Headed by men who ran in the elections in Shia Muslim religious parties, it barred hundreds of candidates from running, most of whom were on the more secular Iraqia slate supported by Sunni Muslims.

This hijacking of the ideals of justice and accountability is "a crime," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a politics professor at Baghdad University. "This should be run by a judge who would accept objectivity," he said, "but now it is used for political reasons."

Looking back at Iraq's turbulent history — coups and counter-coups as well as the long dictatorship — Nadhmi said, "I think revenge played an important role in destroying Iraq, not just the U.S." Citing South Africa after apartheid and Russia after the fall of Communism as good, if flawed examples for Iraq, he said that the country needed to find a way of reconciling with its past, but "I want a genuine state, not a revenge state."

After the film, people mill around outside the Semiramis. It is still broad daylight; it is not safe to have cultural events at night in Baghdad. One man, visibly moved, describes how the footage of the film shot in mass graves brought back to him his own experiences of visiting these horrible pits of bones. The subject matter of the film has touched the audience, and their concerns about the lack of reconciliation in the country are very real.

But even as it brings pain and uncertainty to the surface, the fact that the film was made at all was a source of real joy and hope for the audience. "It is a beautiful film, it is very touching," said Nour al-Qaisy, 27, adding: "I feel really proud, because I think that they are bringing life back again. All these things which terrorism tried to kill — I consider what happened today as a victory for the Iraqi people."