“When you make a film in Iraq, you need to be a good liar. We say we are students, making a student film, and we are making a love story. It is nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with the war, nothing to do with the insurgency, the Americans, with Saddam, what happened with the Iraqi people during Saddam’s regime… it’s just a love story”.
In 2008 Mohamed Al-Daradji returned to his homeland, Iraq, to film Son of Babylon. Having been shot at by Iraqi insurgents and detained by American forces in 2003 during the making of Ahlaam, his first feature film, it seemed a brazen decision to take the risk a second time.
He assures me, however, that “Son of Babylon was a safer film to shoot. No bullets were shot at us anywhere. The police and the army provided security during the shoot; times have changed.”
Indeed, Son of Babylon doesn’t present a dangerous Iraq but rather an Iraq in mourning, searching for closure. It tells the story of 12 year old Ahmed and his grandmother travelling south to find his father, a prisoner of war, who they believe has been released, in Nasiriyah. On their journey, Al-Daradji shows glimpses of thousands of others on similar pilgrimages, searching for answers in the chaos of an Iraq in transition.
The story is in fact one of a very personal nature, drawing on the experiences of his family and friends: “The first inspiration for the film was my aunt, who, having lost her son in the Iraq/Iran war, never found out what happened to him, combined with the news of Kurdish women travelling to search for the mass graves in the south. Then I found out through my friends of a mother from the north who came to the south and searched every prison for her son. A combination of these stories makes up the story of Son of Babylon.”
He recalls the chilling moment when he first heard of the discovery of Saddam’s mass graves which feature so prominently in Son of Babylon: “At the time I was preparing for my first film, Ahlaam, I was walking along Al-Rashid Street in Baghdad when I heard breaking news from a radio coming from a nearby shop: mass graves had been discovered near Babylon. I stopped cold at that moment. The first mass graves uncovered hundreds of thousands of bodies, yet in the wave of chaos and occupation that hit Iraq during this time the majority have remained unidentified. There has been little retrospect and thus people still need answers.”
Al-Daradji in many ways places himself in a position to give people these answers. Having co-founded Human Film production company in 2005 as a means of encouraging individual creativity, his films each carry a social impact and a strong humanitarian voice. “Our ethos,” he says, “is to make films that can encourage social change in a positive way. In raising awareness of issues that need a voice. The more people that become aware of an issue through seeing a film, the more chance there is for a positive change.”
The more I learn of Mohamed Al-Daradji the more it becomes apparent that film-making is just one part of his job, just one of the ways of raising awareness of human rights abuses. Son of Babylon co-exists with Iraq’s Missing Campaign, to raise awareness as to the 1,000,000+ missing people in Iraq. “I wanted to show the world the real Iraq, and help to bring about justice for Iraq’s Missing People and their families,”
“Our endeavour” he adds, “is that Iraq’s missing people campaign and Son of Babylon will communicate the extent of the genocide. I hope it will inspire a high-profile approach to human rights violations that will no longer go unnoticed by the world.”
I wanted to show the world the real Iraq, and to bring about justice for Iraq’s Missing People
Under the regime of Saddam the production and appreciation of Iraqi film ground to an almost complete halt. But Al-Daradji finds himself spearheading a new wave of Iraqi film-makers, informing me that he is in the process of bringing it back to life.
Last year he launched a mobile cinema in order to exhibit his movie in his homeland: “We screened the film in Iraq as part of the first Iraqi Mobile Cinema project. Now we are gearing up for the second, which will take place this year.”
Making Son of Babylon, however, was not easy, with funding hard to come by, and political interference with the script: “It was very difficult. We were not given one penny from Iraqi funds or institutes, as they aren’t established in Iraq to support the film industry. Despite giving us no funding, the government in Baghdad still wanted to change elements of the script.”
Revealing the most difficult aspects in making Son of Babylon, Al-Daradji speaks not of political unrest or the logistics of filming in such dangerous and inaccessible areas, as one might expect, but rather of his casting. He explains, “my style of working and telling the story often means working with non-professional actors. The main character of the film is a mother who goes across Iraq with her grandson, searching for her son who has been missing for twelve years. My aim was to search for people who had this experience; I searched for six months in villages and cities in Iraq. Eventually I came to a small village of about 300 homes and each home had a story about missing people. Knocking on doors and hearing the mothers’ stories of their missing husbands, fathers and sons was heartbreaking; after a while I found my main character. Looking into her eyes I saw that she could be the woman I was looking for; I discovered she lost her husband who she was never able to find, he had been taken to a prison when she was in prison herself and she never saw him again. For twenty years of her life she searched for him and had the same experience as my main character.”
But it was not solely the casting which became difficult, but the process of acting out the traumas of the past: “I felt she would be the right woman to tell this story with me, but it was very difficult as it was so emotional for her and for us”. He adds that “locked somewhere between her character and her memories for eight hours, her character searches for her missing son, but as she played this role she began to relive her own experiences. Going through this experience with her we were all helpless to ease her pain and felt it all ourselves.”
Yet in the midst of the traumatic story it explores, Son of Babylon is a movie with a clear message about tolerance, forgiveness and the need for co-operation: “I tried to show how people can find forgiveness and peace through shared humanity. I think it is an essential part of the healing process.”
Adapting such tender and emotional events for the screen requires a great sense of empathy, but it is an empathy which Al-Daradji demonstrates with skill. Son of Babylon is more than just a piece of artwork. “It is real” he says “and its aftermath echoes in the daily lives of those I love”.
Son of Babylon is released nationwide on the 11th February. You can join the Iraq’s Missing Campaign at www.iraqsmissing.org