Iraqi Filmmaker Used Family's Grief to Power 'Son of Babylon'
Mohamed Al-Dardji navigated the dangerous physical and political terrain of post-war Iraq to tell his tale of loss.
Although unstable, Iraq is a far cry from its nadir in 2005, when sectarian violence ran amok and the idea of homegrown cinema seemed like a pipe dream. But culture now is percolating thanks in no small part to the intrepid storytelling of native son Mohamed Al-Daradji, who navigated the country’s dangerous rifts to get his film made.
Iraq’s official foreign-language Oscar submission, Al-Daradji’s Son of Babylon was shot entirely in Iraq and centers on a willful boy who reluctantly follows his grandmother on a road trip to search for his father’s remains.
“The little boy in the film is basically me,” Al-Daradji says. “He’s wandering around; he’s searching; he’s looking for some answers to his questions. As a boy, I was asking, ‘Why is my auntie crying?’ So I tried to present my experience through this character, which is why this is a really personal story for me.”
The impetus for Son came when Al-Daradji walked the streets of Baghdad in 2003 and the discovery of Saddam Hussein’s mass graves was broadcast on the radio. He immediately thought of his family, including an aunt who lost her son in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s.
“Was he alive or dead? Was he captured by the Iranians or killed by the Iraqi intelligence?” Al-Daradji says. “We never knew anything about him, and I remember during my childhood she was always crying. When we had a wedding or a birthday party, she, along with my mother and the rest of the old women from the family, would start to remember and just cry. And as a small boy, I wondered why she was so sad -- I couldn’t understand.”
From the start, Son was fraught with political sensitivities few filmmakers ever face. There is now a central government in Iraq, but there remains palpable tension among its three main groups: Kurds, Shiite and Sunni. When Al-Daradji made his protagonists Kurdish, some of the film’s funding sources threatened to pull out or invest more if the director changed his story to serve their agendas.
“The adviser to the prime minister suggested that the story was ‘too Kurdish’ and not Arabic enough,” Al-Daradji says. “The Kurdish minister of culture said to me, ‘If you make it more about Kurdish education and change the names, we will give you money.’ ”
But compromise is not in Al-Daradji’s DNA. His aim was to make a picture for all Iraqis and, perhaps, Americans.
“One of the most beautiful experiences I had was when I screened the film at Sundance,” he says. “The screening ended at 2:30 in the morning, and I had a Q&A, and then, when I left to go home, there were about seven mothers of American soldiers waiting to speak to me on my way out. They all hugged me and spoke about how they had lost their children in the war, and they were crying because they said they could understand the pain of the grandmother in the film.”
With the Iraqi government estimating nearly a million people still missing there, the film’s emotional landscape is vast. Because of this stark reality, Al-Daradji -- part auteur, part activist -- is not satisfied with talking the talk: He and producer Isabelle Stead have established the Iraq’s Missing Campaign, devoted to identifying and unearthing victims of Hussein’s mass graves.
“I didn’t want to make a film for the sake of making a film,” he says. “I wanted to make a film that has a real social impact."