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Friday, June 03, 2011

'Son of Babylon'

The cost of war shown in heartbreaking detail

Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed Al Daradji has suffered more than his fair share of human tragedy. But for all his toughened sensibilities, Al Daradji hesitated when a recent invitation to Tokyo landed on his doorstep. This was a chance to promote his film, "Son of Babylon" — dedicated to his late father, and a sheer physical/spiritual drain on him for years. In Iraq, it takes four years or more for a single movie to reach a theater screen, and often the production is interrupted by infrastructure difficulties and political unrest.

Son of Babylon (Japan title: Babiron no Yoko) Rating: (4 out of 5)
★ ★ ★ ★
Son of Babylon (Japan title: Babiron no Yoko)

Director: Mohamed Al Daradji
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: Arabic and Kurdish (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens June 4, 2011
[See Japan Times movie listing]

"It's not a good environment for artists," Al Daradji told The Japan Times (in a supreme moment of understatement) as he relaxed a little in his Tokyo hotel room. "Believe me, I know what it's like to work under duress. I guess that's ultimately the reason I decided to be here, at this time."

When Al Daradji was in Tokyo (mid-April), the city was any international filmmaker's least favorite destination: Promotion tours, interviews and press conferences were being canceled in the wake of March 11's earthquake and tsunami, and many distributors pursed their lips about rescheduling dates. Al Daradji was one of the very few who jumped on a plane, partly because he felt in his bones that it was the right thing to do, and partly because his mother prodded him. "In times like these, it's best to show that you care," she told him. She also added: "It's not like they're fighting a war over in Japan."

The world that Al Daradji draws with bold, muscular strokes in "Son of Babylon," however, has been devastated by war. You'll see yellow swirls of dust rising up from collapsed buildings and overturned cars strewn like corpses along a crooked railway. The images feel eerily close, achingly familiar. But while northeastern Japan has suffered in the hands of a natural disaster, the fate that altered Iraq is terribly and irretrievably man-made.

And that's all the more reason why "Son of Babylon" resonates with such force, its images piercing the retina and haunting the mind. Perhaps it's the last thing a Japanese person would want to see right now. At the same time, "Son of Babylon" is like a rite of passage in these troubled times. See it, for it will surely make us stronger.

The premise is simple, and there are only three central characters, each representing a different generation of Iraqis whose lives have been defined by war. Um Ibrahim (Shazada Hussein) is an old woman who hasn't seen her son since he was forced to fight in the Gulf War years ago. Her grandson, Ahmed (Yasser Talib), has no memory of his dad but is hoping for a reunion now that the war is more or less over. And Musa (Bashir Al Majid) is an ex-Republican Guard about the same age as the missing dad. His mind is poisoned by memories of the wartime atrocities he had to commit under orders, and he now seems hardly able to function.

News photo
Iraqi director Mohamed Al Daradji KAORI SHOJI PHOTO

The story opens three weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Um Ibrahim decides to hit the road and seek out her son, and tells Ahmed to come along. They are the only ones left in their family and she comments that they're lucky, since all around the nation entire families have been gunned down or bombed, with no one left to erect gravestones or weep over loved ones.

Ahmed doesn't say much, but he's clearly excited to make the journey, though it's mostly on foot over rocky, dusty terrain and the possibility of seeing his father again is an inch away from absolute zilch.

As grandmother and grandson make their way, Saddam's infamous mass graves appear like hidden land mines, and the pair have no words when they see other people — mostly old women — collapse into tears as they wander among the shallow pits containing thousands of bodies: mutilated, gunned down, flattened under rubble and shards. The mass graves are their final resting place — they've been unceremoniously piled and just left there.

Al Daradji says he hopes the film will serve as a window "on an Iraq now trying to recover and heal," even as he's painfully aware of the enormity of the undertaking. The filmmaker himself lives and works mainly in London, but his family are in Baghdad, an arrangement that he deems necessary to "keep my perspective clear." He sees the new Iraq in the character of the resilient Ahmed, the first generation in over two decades to grow up without the threat of war and dictatorship draped over its existence like a heavy black shroud.

There's a light-heartedness to Ahmed that eludes the adults, plus a sprouting of individualism and a will to stand up for his rights. "His is the generation that must forge their way step by step," said Al Daradji. "But at least they're not groping in the darkness."

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