Ahlaam (2006)

Ahlaam first published by Film4

SummaryMohamed Al-Daradji‘s feature debut shows the tragic madhouse of pre- and post-war Iraq from the ground up.

Review: With Lions for Lambs (2007), Redacted (2007) and Battle for Haditha (2007) all coming out in rapid succession, Western cinema is at last beginning to examine the Coalition’s post-9/11 ventures in the Middle East – but Mohamed Al-Daradji‘s Ahlaam offers a rare insider’s view of both pre- and post-war Iraq. Like the Italian Neo-Realist classics that immediately followed the Second World War or like Marziyeh Meshkini’s more recent Kabul-set Stray Dogs (2004), Ahlaam has been shot with a local, non-professional cast in the middle of a warzone.

Baghdad, 1998. Ahlaam (Aseel Adel), a student of English, dreams only of settling down with opposition activist Ahmed (Mortadha Saadi) as her husband – but on the day of their wedding he is violently snatched from her by Baa’thist operatives. Industrious medical student Mehdi (Mohamed Hashim) dreams of taking a Master’s degree – but he is forced instead to join the military service because of his father’s former, fatal involvement in Communism. Ali (Bashir Al-Majid) is a patriotic soldier who believes things in Iraq are set to improve, while his comrade and friend Hasan (Kaheel Khalid) dreams of absconding to Europe and getting proper treatment for his alopecia – but both their hopes are cut short during a British-American air-strike, which mortally wounds Hasan and leaves a shell-shocked Ali to be condemned (as punishment for supposed desertion) to surgical mutilation and incarceration in a mental institution. 

Baghdad, 2003. Ahlaam and Ali are still clinging madly to dreams long since broken in Baghdad’s Central Psychiatric Hospital, where Mehdi has only just been posted as the new on-call doctor. In the midst of the Coalition’s overwhelming aerial campaign which will soon bring about the fall of Saddam Hussein‘s regime, the asylum comes under heavy bombardment, and its inmates scatter into the war-torn city. Helped by the fearless Ali, Mehdi leads the effort to bring the patients back to safety – even as the deluded Ahlaam, still wearing her wedding dress, wanders the chaotic streets in search of a fiancé she is doomed never to find. 

If Ahlaam documents the devastating effect that the Baa’thist regime had on all aspects of Iraqi life, it also pulls no punches in depicting the nation’s ‘salvation’ as an illusory dream. Al-Daradji’s characters may all be scarred from their experiences under Saddam, but as Ahlaam’s father (Talib Al-Furati) says when the American military arrives at the end: “Why are you doing this? Slaves are treated better… It was a black hour when you came to this land.” After all, we have just seen at first hand the suffering caused to civilians by the tactics of shock and awe

Inspired by Al-Daradji’s experiences as he helped the staff of a Baghdad psychiatric hospital round up their patients after the fall of Saddam in 2003, and shot in and around Baghdad in 2004, Ahlaam is full of the grimmest details of reality, but constructs from these a drama that is both richly poetic and “a powerful platform for subversive political sedition” – much like the Shakespearean historical tragedies that Ahlaam studies at university. Wedding music is played at funerals, patriots are charged with treachery, surgeons act as torturers, ‘liberators’ rain bombs from the sky, and by the end it is impossible to distinguish the asylum’s inmates from the ordinary folk in the streets. Such is the madness of Iraq under Saddam and beyond.

Like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) before it, Ahlaam is a film whose harrowing narrative is closely mirrored by the history of its production. If the film’s characters are often subjected to seemingly random violence from both sides of the conflict, then the same was true of Al-Daradji and his crew, who, despite having permission to film from the coalition command and a protective guard of Iraqi police, found themselves during the course of the 55-day shoot exposed to gunfire, abduction, mock execution, torture and imprisonment both by insurgents and by the American forces. By all accounts, Al-Daradji had to carry his camera in one hand, and an AK47 in the other. That any film should be made under such circumstances is extraordinary in itself, but that the film should also look so good and be so compelling, is nothing short of a miracle.

Verdict: Mohamed Al-Daradji’s ground-level vision of modern Iraq before and after the ‘liberation’ is a panoptic tragedy of broken dreams and ordinary madness.

Anton Bitel