Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, March 2011
Synopsis: Iraq, April 2003, three weeks after Saddam Hussein’s fall. Elderly Kurdish woman Um-Ibrahim travels with her 12-year-old grandson Ahmed, hoping to reach Nasiriyah, 600 miles south, where her adult son Ibrahim, missing since the first Gulf War 12 years ago, is reportedly being held prisoner. Armed with the flute and military jacket of the father he has never met, Ahmed is just as keen to see the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. First they hitch a ride to bombed-out Baghdad with a sympathetic Kurdish driver. They then travel on to Nasiriyah in a crowded bus, encountering roadblocks and breakdowns along the way – only to find that Nasiriyah prison is now an empty ruin. Here they learn of the mass graves recently discovered nearby.
On the bus back to Baghdad, they meet a kind middle-aged man named Musa. When the bus breaks down, the three set off on foot, and Musa confesses his unwilling involvement in the former Baathist regime’s genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds. Although spurned by Um-Ibrahim, Musa hangs around, taking them first to a local mosque where a prisoner-of-war is being held, and then, when Um-Ibrahim decides that she wants to keep looking for Ibrahim, on to a mass grave. Um-Ibrahim retreats into her despair but also forgives Musa, who reluctantly leaves at Ahmed’s request, telling Ahmed how to find him in future. After another harrowing and fruitless visit to a second mass grave, grandmother and grandson get on a bus home. When Ahmed sees the sign for ‘The Remains of Babylon’, he excitedly turns to wake Um-Ibrahim – but she has died.
Review: “I don’t understand Kurdish, but I can feel her pain and suffering.”
Non-Kurdish viewers might feel much the same way as the Arabic-speaking woman who utters these words of sympathy in Son of Babylon – even if we, unlike her, have the benefit of subtitles. While the West has made many Iraq-themed films in the wake of the Second Gulf War, it has usually ended up just telling stories about itself and its own touristic experiences there – whereas genuine Iraqi voices have remained largely unheard. Baghdad-born filmmaker Mohammed Al-Daradji represents a rare exception to this. His neo-realist feature debut Ahlaam (2005) was shot in and around Baghdad when it was still very much a warzone, using a local, non-professional cast – and it was inspired by the writer/director’s own experiences helping the staff of a Baghdad psychiatric hospital in the chaotic weeks following the fall of Saddam Hussein. Son of Babylon is set in those same weeks, and again transcends linguistic and cultural divides by finding a universal language, intelligible not only to all Iraqis but to viewers of any provenance, in a nation’s collective grief.
Also helping to universalise Son of Babylon is its alignment to that most familiar of genres, the road movie. For here, elderly Um-Ibrahim (Shehzad Hussein) and her 12-year-old grandson Ahmed (Yasser Taleeb) set out on a 600-mile journey from the Kurdish North down to Nasiriyah via Baghdad, as they travel by foot, car, bus and even tractor in search of Um-Ibrahim’s son (and Ahmed’s father) Ibrahim, missing since the First Gulf War. Ahmed has been left with only his father’s flute and military jacket for heirlooms, and his rite of passage through a land ravaged by war and traumatised by loss will lead him in the end to abandon his boyish ambitions to be a soldier, and to choose instead his father’s former career as a musician. Meanwhile, in the absence of Ibrahim, a similarly aged Arab named Musa (Bashir Al-Majid) will become a father figure to Ahmed, and will, despite his unwilling involvement in the previous regime’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds, ultimately earn forgiveness even from Um-Ibrahim. So in this quest for Iraq’s lost generation, Al-Daradji finds a bittersweet balance between hope and despair, setting small scenes of redemption and reconciliation against an otherwise overwhelming backdrop of mass graves, ruins and sorrow.
Throughout all this, communication remains a prominent issue. Stuck forever in the past, Um-Ibrahim speaks only Kurdish, whereas Ahmed is learning Arabic as well, while Musa puts his command of Kurdish to good use even if he gained it in altogether less friendly circumstances. Meanwhile the American soldiers at roadblocks who bark their orders only in English are decentered and largely despised (“Saddam is a bastard, and the Americans are pigs!”, one Kurd declares). In a moment of utter desolation, Ahmed will even resort to seeking answers (“Tell me, how can I help my grandmother?”) from a decidedly unresponsive donkey. Tears and lamentation seem to be the only common form of expression here – although the film’s final image, in which a devastated Ahmed raises his flute to his lips, hints at how the artistic transformation, whether through music or indeed film, of a country’s tragedy might just mark the beginnings of the long road to national recovery.