RIGA - In 2003, only a few short months after the Americans took Baghdad, Mohamed Al-Daradji returned to Iraq for the first time in eight years. He had left his homeland in 1995 when he was 18, when it was suffering a depression due to UN-imposed sanctions. "It was like we were back in the '20s or '30s." He had to get out. In 2003, Baghdad was, as it is now, in chaos, and the young man who had studied photography in the Netherlands found himself teaming up with a group of friends to do something that made the moment a little saner.
They walked the streets of the city looking for former inmates of mental institutions who were wandering the streets and bringing them to safer quarters.
The experience served as the germ for Al-Daradji's first feature film, "Ahlaam," which he filmed on location in Iraq in 2004 under brutal circumstances. "I would like to bring the subject very close to the audience with an artistic point of view," he says. Devotion to realism can have its perils. At one point he was kidnapped by insurgents who shot and wounded his sound technician. Then he was arrested by American soldiers. More on all that laterâ€¦
"I can't ask you to enjoy my film," Al-Daradji told an audience at Kino Riga on Sept. 18, where his film was being shown as part of the Arsenals International Film Forum. He was warning everyone they were about to get very depressed.
"Ahlaam" centers around the lives of three figures, who after suffering for years under Saddam Hussein's regime find themselves in a mental institution that is bombed in the early days of the American invasion.
Ali, one of the protagonists in "Ahlaam," is a soldier sent to patrol the Syrian border who loses his hearing during the American bombing of Iraq in 1998. While trying to save his friend, he finds himself accused of desertion and Baathist authorities order his ear cut off. He is played with unnerving verisimilitude by Basher Al-Majed, 44, who seems to have picked up a fair number of tics in the 12 years he spent in prison under Saddam's rule.
Critics have compared Al-Daradji's style to that of the Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini. He dwells on offsetting images 's a madwoman walking the dead streets of Baghdad in a wedding dress forms the central motif of the film 's that sometimes have unnerving power, and at other times feel a little too didactic.
But "Ahlaam" is not the kind of film you grade. It's impressive mostly for the audacity Al-Daradji and his crew had to make it in the first place.
In contrast to what Al-Daradji calls the "tough realism" of "Ahlaam," the director is himself a gentle, cheerful man of 29 with a mess of curly hair. He was a ubiquitous presence around town during the week of the festival.
At the showing of "Ahlaam," Al-Daradji said, "people in the audience came up to thank me for showing them images that are not easy for them to see from Iraqâ€¦Iraq is so far away."
Under the gun
"Ahlaam" would obviously not have been the movie it is if it had been shot on sound stages in Europe, but the experience of making the movie in war-choked Iraq nearly cost Al-Daradji and some members of his crew their lives.
On the morning of Dec. 17, 2004, he says, a group of insurgents stormed the fourth floor of a building where he and his crew were shooting. "They could have been Al Qaeda, I don't know," he says. They shot his sound technician in the legs and took down his boom man. Another member of his crew started running and they shot at him as well.
The kidnappers took Al-Daradji out on the street with his three crew members where police tried to save them. The kidnappers and police exchanged gunfire for about four or five minutes, he says. Eventually, a fellow group of kidnappers came up on a truck, "guys with masks, guns, grenades" and pulled Al-Daradji and his people on the truck.
"They blindfolded me, beat me." They took his camera and some other equipment, including a tape with twenty solid minutes of footage. But the worst was yet to come.
They got out of the truck near the Tigris River on what Americans had nicknamed "Death Street." Al-Daradji, assuming he was about to die, started reciting a Muslim prayer, but then "a miracle of God happened." He passed out and when he awoke the kidnappers were gone.
He went to a local hospital, where a group of "people in civilian clothes" took them aside and started interrogating them. Al-Daradji lied, said he was just making a student film, but they didn't believe him. They ended up delivering them to a group of American soldiers who "accused us of making a propaganda film for Al Qaeda."
Al-Daradji says the Americans took aside two members of his crew, two boys aged 16 and 18, and showed them pictures of men having sex with each other. But after a night in American custody, another friendlier group of American soldiers took control. They looked at his Web site, he says, and helped him get in contact with the Dutch embassy, which secured his release within five days.
Of the threats he experienced during the shoot, Al-Majed, the actor who plays Ali, told The Washington Post, "I personally did not sign a contract with the director to be the actor as much as I signed my own death certificate."
Al-Daradji is not a political scientist and he doesn't have any clear answers for saving Iraq. He hated Saddam and he hates the war. "I was in Holland thinking, 'Give me $100 million and I will change the regime in six months.'" You just had to pay a few people off to leave the country, and pay a few others to assassinate the one man who needed to be assassinated.
Though some Americans are now calling for a pullout, he doesn't want anything of the kind. "You can't just cause chaos and leave." He faults France and Germany for choosing to wash their hands of the current situation. After all, they succeeded in handling the situation in Lebanon. Why can't they do the same in Iraq? Latvians, he knows, are not happy with their current involvement.
American soldiers don't appear until the very end of "Ahlaam," where we see them pointing guns at a group of incredulous Iraqi civilians. While in American custody, Al-Daradji said he talked to an American soldier who told him a story that sounds very similar to this dramatization, as good as any about the tragic cultural miscommunications that has doomed Iraq for three years.
"He said that when he came to the area, none of the soldiers could speak Arabic and they had no translators. One Iraqi was shouting at them and they didn't know what he was saying, and one of the soldiers just started shooting."