In the Sands of Babylon (Taht remal Babyl): Abu Dhabi Festival Review

This intense look at torture and mass killings under Saddam Hussein’s regime will carry weight with Mideast audiences, but is a tough sell to the rest of the world.

Mohamed Al-Daradji interviews three survivors from the 1991 Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein in a documentary recreation that won Abu Dhabi's Best Film from the Arab World

Director-screenwriter Mohamed Al-Daradji’s companion piece to his 2010 festival hit Son of Babylon, which followed a boy's the search for a father missing in the war, In the Sands of Babylon sounds an even more somber note in depicting the arrest and torture of Iraqi soldiers and regime opponents under Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror. Here the story is told from the viewpoint of the missing soldiers. Once again the stunning visuals in this Iraq-UK-Netherlands-UAE coproduction command attention, taking the bleak true story to a higher, more melodramatic octave. But its shrillness and the use of obvious metaphors to describe the holocaust these people lived through during the 1991 Iraqi uprising will be a turn-off for many outside the Middle East. Walking a fine line between recreation and documentary, it is almost too painful to watch. The film’s eye-witness testimony and its reconstruction of an immense human tragedy will have much stronger repercussions on viewers from the region than outside it.

Three traumatized gray-haired men recount their real-life experiences to a cameraman who is presumably the director Al-Daradji. Each story is a nightmare, and though the interweaving isn’t always smooth, the compound effect is devastating. Ibrahim (played in the fictional scenes by intense actor Samer Qahtan) was a soldier in the Iraqi army’s invasion of Kuwait who got separated from his division. Helping a wounded buddy, he makes his way homeward across the desert until they encounter Iraqi troops, who promptly arrest him as a traitor and spy. He is thrown into one of Saddam’s secret prisons, where senseless torture and murder are the order of the day.

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Unlike war films aiming at entertainment, this recreated docu gives a sickening, oppressive feeling of real people getting hurt, maimed, humiliated and killed. The torture scenes of soldier beating undressed prisoners are unbearable, nor is it easy for the real-life protags to recount their experiences to the camera. All three were left traumatized and are among the few survivors of the prisons (according to the film’s final credits, 100,000 Iraqis are buried in mass graves; only 100 survived Saddam’s jails.)

Another eye-witness is the taciturn photographer Abdel Rahman, who grudgingly takes the film crew to the site of mass graves. Jabar, the third survivor, was a revolutionary who took part in the uprising in Basra. He says of Saddam’s Republican Guard, “They stole my humanity.” They pulled out his toenails until his leg was paralyzed and he lost an eye, “dishonoured like a dog.”

The role the United States played in the tragedy is mentioned more than once. Pres. Bush is blamed for not following through with enough military aid after he encouraged Iraqis to rise up against the dictator, which they did in the south of the country in March 1991. As one character says, “Nobody helped the Iraqi people, neither Americans nor Arabs.” Most of their anger is, however, directed against Saddam Hussein, and his use of chemical weapons against the cities of Najaf and Karbala was as cruel as the torture and murder of his prisoners.

What undercuts the dramatic, non-stop pace and unmodulated excitement of the editing in scenes stunningly photographed by Al-Daradji and Duraid Munajim is the continual recourse to poetic melodrama, a Middle Eastern taste that translates poorly. Bound hands protruding from a truck, or a bright window bringing sunshine and humanity into a dark cell with lyrical dialogue, feel saccharine and fake, particularly with Schubert’s Ave Maria playing over them. Much moving is the modern music of Kad Achour that underscores the film.


Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (narrative competition), Oct. 28, 2013.

Production companies: Human Film, Iraq Al-Rafidain developed through The Sundance Institute with support from the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Baghdad City of Culture of the Arab World 2013, Sanad Fund, Creative England, San Sebastian Cinema in Motion.

Cast: Samer Mohamed, Ameer Al-Daradji, Hassan Bkheet, Hayder Jumaa, Abdul Rahman Ahmed, Basam Mohamad, Jabir Al-Ghalibi

Director: Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji
Screenwriter:  Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji
Producers: Isabelle Stead, Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji, Atia Jabarah Al-Daradji
Directors of photography: Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji, Duraid Munajim
Production designer: Mohamed Moeaser
Editor: Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji

Music: Kad Achour
No rating, 92 minutes.