Alhaam, a movie shot in Iraq in 2004 — during the full catastrophe of the US invasion and related Iraqi insurgencies– is the rawest, hardest to watch movie of war I have ever seen — and I’ve seen many.    Not as tightly plotted or scripted as such American movies as The Hurt LockerFull Metal Jacket or The Thin Red Line  –which are in any case, about Americans in these wars–  the ragged effects of hand-held camera work, the not quite seamless narrative, the sometime loss of control in acting, adds to the chaos of what we are seeing – what they are experiencing.  In American war movies, even if hard-hitting and raw, it is still possible to think — this is not happening; this is a movie.  That’s Sean Penn, or Brad Pitt.  They were on the cover of People this month.  In Ahlaam it is very hard to think any of those things.  Whatever knowledge we retain that the movie has a director and actors it is hard not to believe that this is not a pure documentary of citizens caught in hell.

The film begins on the second day of the infamous  “Shock and Awe,” air campaign as American explosives light up the sky over Baghdad, scenes most of us are familiar with from the actual days of the bombing, scenes we saw on CNN.  One of the buildings blown to smithereens is an insane asylum.  Through the broken walls and over smoking rubble the terrified inmates escape. The film follows several of them through the streets and back into their lives to show how they came to be there, beneath the bombs.

Alhaam, the lead character – whose name means Hope–  is bubbling and pretty on the days of her engagement.  She and her fiancee meet by the Euphrates and laugh about having their mothers take care of all the children they plan to have.  Her wedding day, with the dancing, ululating family,  is just a day before the bombing.  As she is about to come downstairs for the ceremony, masked Iraqis burst into the house and kidnap her fiancee.  Through most of the film she staggers across the still-being-bombed cityscape trying to find him.

Ali’s story and institutionalization began in 1998, during the earlier bombing of Iraq by US and British forces during Operation Desert Fox.  An easy going soldier, he tries to cheer his best friend, in the army with him, who constantly talks about fleeing Iraq, the army, and the butchery of Saddam Hussein and beginning again in Europe.  During a bombardment the friend is badly wounded and Ali makes a heroic effort to carry him across the desert to get help.  He is eventually arrested by Iraqis, having gone mad and still carrying the corpse of his friend.  He is charged with desertion, and incarcerated.  In the asylum he calls the name of the friend over and over, obsessed with his inability to have saved him.

The third of the major characters is Mehdi, a hard working, diligent medical student who, after passing his board, is rounded up by that Baathists and impressed into the army — because of his father’s communist ties.  It is Mehdi who is in charge of the ruined hospital and leads a desperate search — with Ali in the lead– for those who have escaped and are roaming madly in the madness.

There are some over-the-top moments which might have been more powerful if more understated; even in a movie about chaos and human emotion we seem to have a sense of “over acting.”  The trope of inmates running, or escaping, an asylum as an allegory for the rest of us may be a bit cliched to educated readers, but as the crazed Ahlaam searches for, and occasionally “sees” her fiancee, when she is raped  by Iraqis who should be the first to help her, when a masked sniper deliberately picks off citizens, including some the inmates struggling back to the hospital any idea of cliche is blown away.  Some of the shots, the image of Ali carrying his friend through the mirage emitting desert comes to mind, are as powerful as any you are likely to have seen in any movie, anytime.

There isn’t much to be cheerful about during the course of the movie; nor in the war, of course.  Mehdi, the doctor is a wonderful portrait of patience and desperation, trying to befriend the terrified inmates, offering them cigarettes to show he means no harm,  carrying one through the swampy mud at the edge of the Euphrates…  Ali, racing around Baghdad often in nothing more than boxer shorts,  becomes the idiot-every man rising out of his personal maddness to help those around him.

Next to the hell of  Alhaam Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell seems almost a cartoon of fanciful symbols, a misleading distraction from the actual hells that humans create.

Mohammed Al-Daradji, the director, is a young Dutch-Iraqi film maker, living  in Europe to avoid persecution from the Baathist regime.  When the war broke out in 2003 he went back wanting to make a film about ordinary Iraqi people. Ahlaam was shot in Baghdad in extremely difficult conditions – not only did he have to work around curfews and electricity cuts but members of his crew were arrested both by insurgents and by the Americans, neither side believing that they were simply making a film.

An interesting interview at Electric Sheep, can be found here.

 

AD: The character of Ahlaam is the one that brought me to the story. In 2003 I was watching the news about the war in Iraq while I was studying for a Master at Leeds University and I saw a reportage about a mental institution in Baghdad and how they were affected by the war. And then I saw Ahlaam – she was talking in a nonsensical way and it really shocked me. I couldn’t sleep that night. I dreamt about Ahlaam, on the street in Baghdad as you saw in the film.

VS: So Ahlaam was a real character?

AD: She was a real character, but I couldn’t meet her when I went to the mental institution in Baghdad two months after I saw the reportage. But I met another character, Ali. She wasn’t called Ahlaam. Ahlaam in Arabic means ‘dreams’. It’s not just about Ahlaam’s dreams but it’s also the dreams of the other characters, Ali’s dreams, Doctor Mehdi’s dreams, the dreams of any Iraqi who’s lived under Saddam’s regime and under the invasion. So for me it was about giving two meanings to the title: it’s the girl, and it’s also the meaning of the word.

 Alhaam was his first full length work, which he followed up with Son of  Babylon, not yet available at Netflix, but in the queue.  It was made under the auspices of Human Film  which also has other note-worth films to its credit, a new style production company like Participant Media, which ties it’s movies into vehicles not for product placement but for social change.

 

Twinned, Human Film & Iraq Al-Rafidain established in 2005, with a goal to seek and explore individual creativity, producing films with a social conscience and impact.
With roots in the east through our bases in Leeds (UK), Rotterdam (NL) and Baghdad (IQ), we are collectively committed to producing innovative, compelling films that entertain, inspire and challenge perceptions, furthering understanding on critical human issues to worldwide audiences through film.

Through our existence, we have the opportunity to share stories that we have a strong personal belief in, and through not applying any language, cultural, political, religious, or any other barriers to our filmmaking practice our work has the potential to affect and inspire.

Over the past 5 years we have successfully completed 3 feature films in Iraq; Ahlaam (2006), Iraq’s official entry for the 2011 Oscars and Golden Globes, Son of Babylon (2010) the recipient of the Berlinale IFF Peace Prize, Amnesty Film Award 2010 and Karlovy Vary’s NETPAC Award and most recently: Iraq, War, Love, God and Madness (2010).

 

You won’t find a more honest, direct and even heroic account of the toll war takes on non-combatants than in this movie.  Ahlaam is a must see, even if you can’t watch some of it.

 

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