Today: April 17, 2024

Director Mohamed Al-Daradji

With the current ongoing success of his multi-award-winning film Son of Babylon, Mohamed Al-Daradji is possibly the best-known Iraqi filmmaker at the moment. His homeland is still embroiled in the turmoil of war but he has braved the chaos to bring films of incredible humanity to the international arena.

With the current ongoing success of his multi-award-winning film Son of Babylon, Mohamed Al-Daradji is possibly the best-known Iraqi filmmaker at the moment. His homeland is still embroiled in the turmoil of war but he has braved the chaos to bring films of incredible humanity to the international arena. In his relatively short career he has made three features Ahlaam (2005), the documentary about making that film Iraq: War, Love, God & Madness (2008) and Son of Babylon (2009), all shot in Iraq.

Born in Baghdad in 1978 he grew up under Saddam’s regime and, as a child, he was enthralled by his country’s leader, which later served as the inspiration for Ahmed, the boy in Son of Babylon. “When I was in primary school, aged seven or eight years old, I was in love with Saddam Hussein. I loved him more than my father. I was writing – I was very good at writing – and we had to write something about the president during the time of the Iraq-Iran War, and I was so in love with him that I made him seem like a god, and I would always have to read in front of the school to about 1000 school children, and I would get prizes. When I got to the age of Ahmed in Son of Babylon, around 12 years old, I started to understand things, and my father explained to me that Saddam is very bad. I changed when I went to standard school, and this is where I used Ahmed’s change from wanting to be a soldier to being a musician. It is about my childhood and discovering things about my country.”

On leaving school he studied Fine Art in Baghdad before moving to Holland in 1995 to study Film and Television Production at the Media Academy in Hilversem. He later worked as a cameraman for documentaries and Dutch TV. Mohamed then headed to the UK to study at the Northern Film School in Leeds where he completed a Masters Degree in Cinematography, and followed it up with another MA in Directing, and went on to win the prestigious Kodak student award for commercials.

The US’s spurious war on terror, which lead to the invasion of Baghdad, not only blindly destroyed thousands of years of Iraq’s cultural heritage in its aftermath, but also succeeded in wiping out its film industry. While the invading troops and their support industry enjoy all the latest Hollywood releases in the relative comfort of the Green Zone, it is a completely different story outside, as Mohamed explained.

We don’t have a film industry in Iraq. There is no infrastructure for a proper film industry. There are no proper financial institutions. We do have an organisation that is supposed to look after the film department in the country, but they don’t. In the north, in the Kurdish region, they have a film organisation where they make one or two films every year. We have a movement of individuals who make films in Iraq. We don’t have a proper theatre where people can go and watch films. We had about 275 but they have been destroyed by the war. It is very bad, but we still make films.”

Mohamed co-founded Human Film, a Europe-based feature film production company with a remit to make movies with a social impact. He returned to Iraq in 2003 and began shooting his first feature, Ahlaam, amidst the chaos of the war, which proved far more dangerous than he anticipated, but the film went on to great international success, picking up over 22 awards and representing Iraq for Oscar and Golden Globe consideration. It was during the preparation for that film a major event occurred that had a massive impact on the future direction of the young director’s life.

“I was walking along Al-Rashid Street in Baghdad when I heard breaking news from a radio in a nearby shop: mass graves had been discovered near Babylon. I stopped cold at that moment. Since I could remember, fathers and sons of family and friends had disappeared over the years. No family unaffected and no one dare ask why. I thought about my aunty whose son had gone missing 15 years before. It took me about an hour to gather myself again.”

The first mass graves uncovered hundred’s 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 people still need answers. Inspired by the relationship I shared with my aunt, the idea came for Son of Babylon to bind two generations; the older steeped in suffering, the younger bearing hope for the future. A mother’s search for her lost son; a boy’s journey to find himself and his father. Each in the abyss I felt against the backdrop of war and occupation as I struggled to comprehend the tragedy.”

“Over four years, day and night I prepared, wrote and cried whilst gathering the archival footage of what had happened. It’s not been easy for me to tell this story and it’s become much more than a film or piece of cinema to me and my team, it’s real and its aftermath echoes in the daily lives of those I love.”

Not only did that event inspire his latest film, but also motivated Mohamed into doing something more practical for the victims and their families by setting up the Iraq’s Missing Campaign as a way of capitalising on the film’s impact on audiences. He speaks passionately about the campaign and what has happened in his country.

“Of course, I am very angry and traumatised about how people underestimate the situation in Iraq. How my family, friends and my people are not respected as human beings. If 65 people die in Europe that is a bigger deal than 65 people dying in Iraq. I get angry but I try to show this through my films and make people realise, it is just as horrible when it happens in Iraq; hopefully people recognise this – this is the main reason for the Iraq’s Missing Campaign that begs the international community to recognise what has happened in Iraq as a genocide. The Iraq Ministry of Human Rights estimate more than 1.5 million have gone missing over the last 40 years and estimate hundreds of thousands of bodies have been recovered from 300 mass graves so far. Numbers are growing as more mass graves are discovered, which is overwhelming the limited resources that aid organisations in Iraq have available to them. Our endeavour is that the Iraq’s Missing campaign and Son of Babylon will communicate the extent of the genocide and are lobbying for the redirection of resources in Iraq and from outside organizations dedicated to issues such as these, to fund the technology needed for the identification of the bodies in a more efficient way. I hope it will inspire a high-profile approach to human rights violations that will no longer go unnoticed by the world. http://www.iraqsmissing.org”

Although the making of Son of Babylon was not nearly as intense as his experiences of shooting Ahlaam (“no bullets were shot at us”), it was still a difficult shoot mainly because of the continuing lack of any infrastructure in the country. Suggestions by his funders to shoot the film in Morocco or Jordan were rejected, because Mohamed insisted the film had to be shot in Iraq. “If I leave Iraq, and another filmmaker leaves Iraq, who is going to be there, who’s going to rebuild the culture. We need to rebuild the culture there. Only three films have been made so far since 2003 and all the equipment and facilities must be brought in from outside Iraq.”

Not only was there a lack of equipment, but there was also no one locally to operate it. “The crew are inexperienced because of the lack of filmmaking, so really you need to bring outsi
ders to make the film, whilst training the Iraqi crew, but again security is difficult for foreigners. In our film we had three crew members from France and three from the UK, whilst in the North of Iraq, but in the south the UK crew left the production, for our security. Shortly after, the French crew left when the French embassy told them to leave. Therefore we had an entirely Iraqi crew, but we succeeded through determination and commitment under those conditions.”

Despite the lack of money and facilities Mohamed is dedicated to rebuilding an independent film industry in Baghdad, which makes it one of the few industries there that hasn’t been usurped by US corporations, yet. “My colleague Oday Rasheed and I have created the Independent Film Centre in Baghdad, where we try to be independent; we work together with young filmmakers and try to do some education. For example, we have a mobile cinema where we show some of our films like Son of Babylon, Iraq: War, Love, God and Madness, and go around villages showing the films. There is no proper focus of a creative film industry. We had a film industry but it was mainly for propaganda and used by the army and the regime. We had the facilities but they have all been destroyed. We are really in a bad situation in general, but as individuals we are doing well and we co-produce with Europe and other countries and every year one or two films from Iraq go to festivals, but there is no professional industry like in Europe.”

In 2010, Mohamed was named Variety’s Middle Eastern Filmmaker of the Year, which made him perfectly placed to try and define Middle Eastern cinema for this issue. “It could be the subject or the way we tell the story. Each human being has his own way of telling a story. You have your own way of telling your story, and I have my own way of telling my story. It’s the way we’ve grown up and our cultural background, and the weather, which influences our mentality. In the Middle East, people use their hands and move their bodies when they talk, like Greeks and Italians. It’s the same whether you are from Iraq, Iran, Israel, Turkey or Morocco. Of course each country has different styles. Iranian cinema has a different form; the Moroccan and Algerian have different forms, the Egyptian and Arabs have different forms, but when you see it you know it is a film from the Middle East. It’s the way we use symbolic things. In the Middle East, for example, we look from right to left. When I see your face I look from right to left. It’s to do with the way we read and how we’ve grown up that has given us a different way of seeing things. In the Son of Babylon, when I talk with my colleague and friend, who is a Western filmmaker, he noticed things that I didn’t, things that aren’t in the way Western filmmakers approach or see the subject, and it added something to the storytelling. Middle Eastern cinema is more poetic sometimes, there’s less talk than say French films, and more to do with the images and the events that happen around us and make us react.”

Son of Babylon certainly fulfils those criteria, bringing humanity and a poetic vision to a situation that has been distorted or totally ignored by the Western media coverage. Although it is a work of fiction it carries more truth about what is happening to the people of Iraq than any news broadcast, which is why it has attracted so many festival awards. It has been nominated as Iraq’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards, so let’s hope it continues its winning streak, not only for a fine filmmaker but also to bring much needed publicity for the Iraq’s Missing campaign.

Son of Babylon is released in UK cinemas on February 11 through Dogwoof.

Marcia Degia - Publisher

Marcia Degia, who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years, is the Publishing Editor of KOL Social Magazine. See website: thekolsocial.com

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