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Too much realism on location in Iraq

Mohamed Daradji's crew for `Ahlaam' was kidnapped -- first by Sunnis, then by Shiites -- and jailed by U.S. forces.

February 04, 2007|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

MOHAMED DARADJI knelt in the dust at the sheik's feet, begging for his life and the lives of his companions. The gunmen, who had grabbed them in midscene off a Baghdad street, were Sunni Muslims, loyalists to Saddam Hussein's fallen regime. So Daradji, a Shiite, fervently swore he was a fellow Sunni, a Baath Party member, anything to make the beatings stop.

It didn't work.

"Take them," the elder leader said as the gunmen hustled the director and his three film crew members -- two of them his young nephews -- into a pickup truck. The last thing Daradji remembers is hearing the sounds of the Tigris River nearby and knowing he was about to be executed.

"I felt the angel of death coming," said Daradji, 28.

Then he blacked out.

Every movie ever made carries with it a tale of hardship and difficulty: budget problems, creative battles, equipment failures. But "Ahlaam," Daradji's first feature, may just trump them all. Filmed in post-invasion Baghdad with antiquated equipment and an untrained crew amid collapsing security, the movie is a testament to Daradji's resourcefulness, stubborn dedication and, to an extent, sheer dumb luck.

Despite his hopes, the film, which he says has been hamstrung by the lack of a promotional budget from Iraq's erstwhile Ministry of Culture, didn't make the Oscar short list for best foreign language film. Still searching for a distribution deal, Daradji has been on the film festival circuit from Brooklyn to Cairo. It was well received at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last weekend and will be screened at the Portland International Film Festival this month and the Tiburon International Film Festival next month.

Daradji's film may end up being the last movie to come out of Iraq for a while. The country's artistic life experienced a brief resurgence in the year after the U.S.-led invasion, with musicians, painters and actors all striving to restore Baghdad's legacy as one of the Arab world's cultural capitals. That trend has died as Iraq descends into civil war, with much of the educated, artistic class fleeing the country.

"Ahlaam," set largely in a Baghdad mental hospital during the U.S. siege of the capital, tells the tragic story of modern Iraq through the experiences of three protagonists -- two of whom spend most of the film nearly catatonic. The film is unrelentingly dark -- both in tone and in actual lighting. Some of the scenes are so murky that it's hard to tell what's happening; between unreliable equipment and constant power cuts, Daradji said he sometimes had to shoot using car headlights rigged with filters.

The arbitrary cruelty of Hussein's regime is vividly on display in the lives of all the main characters: The title character, Ahlaam, is driven mad when her activist fiance is arrested on their wedding day; Ali, a former soldier, is mutilated and forcibly committed for deserting the army; Dr. Mehdi, the asylum's new staffer, is blackballed to the fringes of medicine because of his father's activist past. And the U.S. soldiers who appear at the close of the film come off as one more disaster rather than anybody's saviors. The ending, with Baghdad overrun by American troops, leaves little hope that things will get better.

It was in this shattered and increasingly lawless landscape that Daradji first conceived "Ahlaam." A Baghdad native, he left Iraq in 1995 at age 17, acquiring Dutch citizenship and a master's in film production from Leeds Metropolitan University in England.

He returned to Iraq in autumn 2003, several months after the U.S.-led ousting of Hussein.

"It was chaos," he said. "I found mental patients wandering in the street."

He and a friend helped deliver an escaped patient back to Baghdad's main asylum, and Daradji stayed on as a volunteer. "I spent two weeks going there every day, bringing clothes and cigarettes for the patients," said Daradji. Now a resident of Leeds, England, he is an excitable man, with a cascade of curly black hair and an ever-present cigarette. He speaks with hand-waving passion about the conditions in Iraq and his desire to keep filming in the country where much of his family still lives.

His main characters -- the delusional former bride, the shellshocked soldier and the idealistic doctor -- are all based directly on people he met during that time.

With the idea in place, Daradji faced the daunting logistics of bringing "Ahlaam" to fruition. For starters, while the Iraqi entertainment industry had steadily produced television shows for state-controlled channels, the country had not produced a movie in decades. All 35-millimeter film stock had been banned under international sanctions as a "dual use" item that could be used to help make chemical weapons.

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