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Son of Babylon -- Film Review

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ABU DHABI -- It is appropriate that the first post-Saddam feature films coming out of Iraq look back at the recent horrors that have taken place in that unfortunate country. Mohamed Al-Daradji's noteworthy "Son of Babylon" uses the simplified storytelling language familiar from Iranian cinema to communicate the tremendous sense of human loss a little boy and his grandmother have experienced. Regional politics -- the U.S. occupation, the Kurdish atrocities -- are discreetly backgrounded, opening the film up to wider international audiences who will have no trouble entering the pictures's emotional vortex.

That said, the story of Ahmed and his grandmother's search for the boy's father Ibrahim, MIA and reportedly arrested in 1991, is excruciatingly sad. In one story, it brings home the mind-boggling toll taken by the Saddam years, with more than one million Iraqis dead or missing, many exhumed from the 300 mass graves discovered up to now. This road movie, stretching from Iraqi Kurdistan to the graves tumbling with skulls and bones, will be travelled only by the most intrepid audiences.

The time is 2003, just after the fall of Saddam. Baghdad is still burning, in places, and the American accents of soldiers tell us the occupation is in force. We meet 12-year-old Ahmed (Yassir Taleeb) and his stooped-backed granny (Shehzad Hussen) standing on a hot, empty desert road, waiting for a ride to distant Nasiriyah. The greedy man who reluctantly picks them up has the task of filling in background info, such as explaining to Ahmed that the "Anfal" was Saddam's Holocaust against Kurds and Arabs.

He gets them as far as Baghdad, where they look for a bus to Nasiriyah. The near-separation of Ahmed and the grandmother, who goes by the name of Um-Ibrahim or "Ibrahim's mother", provides a first moving moment of true emotional force. The wild, bratty Ahmed is closer to Makhmalbaf's Afghani war boys than Kiarostami's victimized innocents, and young Taleeb's brash voice and unselfconscious performance is the perfect mesh with Hussen's determined Kurdish granny, as they make their way from mosque to morgue, prison to graveyard.

The journey gives Al-Daradji a chance to touch on many open wounds in post-war Iraq, personified in well-drawn characters like the melancholy, decent Musa, a former member of Saddam's Republican Guard. The theme of the need to forgive those who have injured you runs dutifully through the script with an almost Judeo-Christian force, like the oddly inserted story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac at the behest of the Lord. But these philosophic add-ons have little impact, compared to the raw human emotions that the actors communicate.

Though the story is simple and cast unfamiliar, the film nowhere suffers from an under-budgeted look. The long list of co-producers is reflected in high quality production values, as well as some highly predictable character arcs and other Westernisms. Al-Daradji's own startlingly bright, clean widescreen cinematography refreshes the eye and encourages the viewer to go further. The film was supported by and showcased at the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, where it had its world premiere in October, and Sundance, where it bowed internationally in the world cinema competition.

Venue: Middle East International Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival

Production companies: Human Film (U.K.), Iraq Al-Rafidain (Iraq), CRM-114 (France) in association with U.K. Film Council, The Sundance Institute, Screen Yorkshire
Cast: Shehzad Hussen, Yassir Taleeb, Bashir Al-Majed
Director: Mohamed Al-Daradji
Screenwriters: Jennifer Norridge, Mohamed Al-Daradji, Mithal Ghazi
Executive producers:Antonia Bird, Nashwa Al-Ruwaini, Hugo Heppell
Producers: Isabelle Stead, Atia Al-Daradji, Mohamed Al-Daradji, Dimitri De Clercq
Directors of photography: Mohamed Al-Daradji, Duraid Munajim
Production designers: Udai Mania, Hayden Jabar, Mohammed Moeaser
Music: Kad Achouri
Costumes: Akhlas Saddam
Editors:Pascale Chavance, Mohamed Jbara
Sales Agent: Roissy Films, Paris
91 minutes