Thursday, March 7, 2013

Land Between the Rivers: Ahlaam

The 20th of March marks one decade since the US-led invasion of Iraq. The ensuing war there lasted 8 years, 8 months, 4 weeks, and 3 days. 

Ahlaam (2006)

Called Dreams in English, Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed Al Daradji's debut feature is an ensemble piece concerning the lives of patients and doctors inside a Baghdad mental hospital during the opening salvos of the American invasion of 2003. It was filmed in the same city amidst some of the war's greatest hazards; several crew members were kidnapped and killed during production. The choice to shoot the film in country as fighting still raged is courageous and certainly brings the film a danger and authenticity that Post-WW2 Italian neorealism would envy. And any gracelessness or minor technical shortcoming can be overlooked given the circumstances of the film's production.
We spend the first act of the film in 1998. Our principal characters are Ahlaam, a young woman who's engaged to be married to the love of her life; Ali, a soldier on Iraq's frontier; and Mehdi, an idealistic medical student on the eve of graduation. We live with them as they go about their seemingly normal days under the heavy yet mostly unseen shroud of Saddam's dictatorship. In this Iraq, the people suffer a quiet terror which they attempt to bury with educational pursuits, romance, and song. Each character's world is shattered in one way or another, and then we fastforward to find them populating the asylum in a besieged Baghdad; Mehdi is a doctor there and Ahlaam and Ali are patients long ago driven mad by their respective trauma. Stewing in regret and sadness, they act out an interpretive dance of madness. 
In the third act the asylum is bombed and many of the inmates escape to wander a crumbling city that is quickly going crazier than them. I doubt much if any production design or set dressing was necessary to convey this urban warzone. Anywhere the filmmakers point their lens we see piles of rubble, bombed out buildings, and all over the city the specter of death hangs like a giant, suffocating cobweb. After years contained in the institution, Ali and Ahlaam spill into the streets to discover that their country has traded a familiar, repressed, whispered fear of the state for a blaring, new and bombastic terror. 
Ahlaam was the first film produced in Iraq after the fall of Saddam and was that country's entry into the Academy Awards the year of its release. It is a harrowing and poetic expression of how things must have felt in Baghdad when the bombing started; it tells a story that rarely finds its way to most American viewers, lost amid the jingoistic propaganda of the Shock and Awe period and then the war-weariness of the years that followed. Find this film and watch it. 

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