SIFF 2010: Son of Babylon ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

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Son of Babylon  is a tremendously moving “road movie” from Iraq, Set in 2003, weeks after the fall of Saddam, it follows the arduous journey of a Kurdish boy named Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shazda Hussein) as they travel south to Nasiriyah, the last known location of Ahmed’s father, who disappeared during the first Gulf War.

As they traverse the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes of Iraq’s bomb-cratered desert (via foot, hitched rides, and alarmingly overstuffed buses) a portrait emerges of a people struggling to keep mind and soul together, and to make sense of the horror and suffering precipitated by two wars and a harsh dictatorship.

Sometimes with levity; “I’m going to go call Sadaam,” a man says to Ahmed with a wink as he excuses himself to go take a leak.  At other times, with understated eloquence; when one of their travel companions questions the futility of the pair’s fruitless search through the morass of mass grave sites spanning Saddam’s killing fields, the grandmother says “Losing our sons is like losing our souls.” The man’s mute reaction speaks volumes.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji  and screenwriter Jennifer Norridge have created something that has been conspicuously absent in the growing list of Iraq War(s) movies from Western directors in recent years-an honest and humanistic evaluation of the everyday people who  get caught in the middle of such armed conflicts-not just in Iraq, but in any war, anywhere. With  few exceptions (David O. Russell’s Three Kings comes to mind), most of the Western-produced films about the Iraqi conflicts have generally portrayed the Iraqis as either faceless heavies, or at best, “local color”.

While the film makers do allude to some of the politics involved,  the narrative is constructed in such a way that, whether Ahmed’s father was killed by American bombs or Saddam’s own pogroms becomes moot. This is a universal story about human beings, rendered in a  direct, neorealist style that recalls Vitorrio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.

If the film has a message, it is distilled in a small, compassionate gesture and a single line of dialogue. An Arabic-speaking woman, who is also searching for a missing loved one at a mass gravesite sets her own suffering aside for a moment to lay a comforting hand on the lamenting grandmother’s shoulder and says “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Kurdish, but I can feel this woman’s pain and sadness.”

There’s one thing I can say for certain regarding this emotionally shattering film (aside that it should be required viewing for heads of state, commanders-in-chief, generals, or anyone else on the planet who wields the power to wage war)…I don’t speak Kurdish, either.

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