'Baghdad in My Shadow': Film Review

Samir - Kopie - Still 1 - Publicity_H 2020
Cultural politics ignite in a jumpy art house thriller.

Swiss-based Samir returns to the cultural angst of his documentaries 'Forget Baghdad' and 'Iraqi Odyssey' in a fictional thriller about Iraqis living in London.

Forceful characters and a realistic setting save a complicated thriller from disintegrating into its many parts in Baghdad in My Shadow. The voices sound authentic and the dramas are as involving as headline news. Directed by the mononymous Samir, the veteran producer, writer and director of the Swiss production house Dschoint Ventschr, the story covers too much ground to be a smooth or easy watch, yet the Switzerland-Germany-U.K. co-production is gripping enough to have some crossover potential between Arab and Western audiences. The film bowed at the Locarno and Cairo festivals.

If Samir's documentary Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs — The Iraqi Connection explored what happens when immigrants (Iraqi-born Jews living in Israel) are forced to change their culture and language and become “the enemy of their own past," Baghdad in My Shadow is a bit more hopeful that its protagonists' original Iraqi culture can co-exist with that of the West, while they slowly and laboriously integrate themselves into London life.

Like films from the Middle East, Baghdad in My Shadow sadly acknowledges the powerlessness of the older, more sensible members of the community to counteract the influence of extremism on their children. But the pic is notable in confronting sensitive topics that many Arab films only hint at. Radical Muslim preachers who groom young male believers for terrorism, changing attitudes toward homosexuality and Islam's great Shi’ite-Sunni divide are some of these.

In a multi-sided screenplay that jumps back and forth in time, Samir and Furat al Jamil try to connect the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime with, first, the exile of Iraqis caught in the political crossfire, and then their contemporary expat life in London. A small Iraqi community gravitates around the Abu Nawas café, patronized by poets and Communists, gays and artists. It looks like a fun place to drop in for a coffee, but among the good-hearted regulars is one bad apple ready to explode and wreak havoc.

The gray-haired, soft-spoken poet Taufiq (Haytham Abdulrazaq) calms boiling spirits and offers guidance in the café. He takes his hot-headed nephew Nasseer (striking young actor Shervin Alenabi) under his wing in an attempt to divert him from the propaganda that a corrupt sheikh (Farid Elouardi) is feeding him in a radical mosque. Another strand follows young IT expert Muhannad (the winning Waseem Abbas) in a gay love story he hides from his parents. But it’s an open secret to the habitués in the café, who are targeted along with the boy when he falls afoul of the sheikh.

In a parallel love story, Amal (Zahraa Ghandour, more expressive here than as the terrorist in Mohamed Al Daradji’s The Journey) falls for a young English construction manager. They visit a show featuring the work of late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid and slowly move forward with their relationship, until Amal’s own social paranoia gets in the way. She doesn’t realize how fast the community is adapting to Western thinking. Then an unwelcome visitor from her past ignites the fuse in a violent ending.

The cinematography, credited to Alfredo de Juan and The Chau Ngo, nicely distinguishes between the film’s many times and places: a black-and-white torture chamber in Baghdad, the cold neon of a police interrogation room in London, the warm café. But the back-and-forth cutting still feels unsettling and patterned after TV.

Production companies: Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion, Coin Film, Ipso Facto Productions
Cast: Haytham Abdulrazaq, Zahraa Ghandour, Kae Bahar, Shervin Alenabi, Waseem Abbas, Taro Bahar, Farid Elouardi, Ali Daim Mailiki, Maxim Mehmet
Director: Samir
Screenwriters: Samir, Furat al Jamil
Producer: Joel Jent
Executive producers: Phil Hunt, Compton Ross
Directors of photography: Alfredo de Juan, The Chau Ngo
Production designer: Fabian Luscher
Costume designer: Ulrike Scharfschwerdt
Music: Walter Mair
Editor: Jann Anderegg

Venue: Cairo International Film Festival (Horizons of Arab Cinema)
Sales: Global Screen

108 minutes