It’s March 2003, and the US is on the brink of invading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. As a Baghdad detective, widower Muhsin al-Khafaji (Waleed Zuaiter) is officially part of the regime they want to topple. Taking his two daughters to a birthday party, the eldest, Sawsan (Leem Lubany), has high hopes for the looming invasion. “Let them come,” she says, “It will mean freedom. Democracy.” Eight months later Saddam is gone, Sawsan is missing and al-Khafaji is being tortured by the Americans. Welcome to Baghdad Central.
Even after almost two decades, it’s still rare to see a take on the Iraq invasion that puts Iraqis at the centre of the story. A dual-language thriller (al-Khafaji speaks Arabic while he’s on the job, and English at home and when dealing with his bosses), its focus on the Iraqi suffering under the invasion – and its decidedly unheroic presentation of the invaders – is a refreshingly current take on the recent past. But Baghdad Central also proudly taps into another, older storytelling tradition: film noir.
Don’t be fooled by the harsh sun and desert air, the sweaty characters and wild west attitude of the occupiers. Right from the start this series is firmly on classic noir turf, with al-Khafaji as the battered detective with a dark past and a fondness for hard liquor. Sawsan hasn’t been seen since she left for university two days ago; now he has a case to solve, and this time it’s personal. Turns out she was working as a translator for the Americans, and in Iraq that’s the kind of side hustle that can get you killed. A lot of the locals still see that as assisting the enemy, and the Americans are rapidly proving themselves to be more (or less) than the freedom-loving liberators Sawsan hoped for.
That’s only the start of the mystery, especially once Sawsan’s professor – who’s something of a femme fatale – Zubeida Rashid (Clara Khoury) appears on the scene. Like all femmes fatale, she clearly knows more than she’s willing to say. “Women in today’s Iraq have a habit of disappearing,” she tells him, and there’s a whole world of layers just in that one line.
Part of the pleasure of Baghdad Central is watching the way that this gritty, real-life thriller breathes new life into noir’s classic traditions. When you’re a gumshoe working a case, it’s traditional to get hauled off and worked over by a gang of thugs who don’t like what you’re up to. Here those thugs are the US military, who smash through his door, throw him down, cuff him, drag him off to a detention centre and proceed to torture him. That dapper moustache he was sporting? They literally tear it off his face.
Once al-Khafaji has been given a solid going-over, he’s faced with the kind of dilemma that makes noir so compelling, as former Scotland Yard copper Frank Temple (Bertie Carvel) turns up and offers him a job. He’s putting the Baghdad police force back together, and al-Khafaji is exactly the kind of man he’s looking for. If he accepts, there’ll even be medicine for his younger daughter Mrouj (July Namir), who needs regular dialysis. And while becoming a tool of the oppressor is exactly the kind of thing that will get you killed in a city where teenagers are arming themselves with automatic weapons to defend their neighbourhoods, it’s not like he has any real choice. Or, as it rapidly becomes clear, any real power.
The series has some fun with noir’s lighter traditions too. Al-Khafaji even has cab driver Karl (Youssef Kerkour) to take him around and banter with. But what makes this a classic noir is the murky moral landscape al-Khafaji finds himself stuck in. Baghdad has become a menacing city driven by fear and paranoia, and for many the choice after the fall of Saddam is a stark one: work with the occupying forces and risk death, or starve. The line between terrorist and patriot isn’t so much blurred as non-existent, and keeping your head down and focusing on survival isn’t always an option.
On the other side, the invaders are a uniformly (and bracingly) nasty bunch, including US military police captain John Parodi (Corey Stoll), who like everyone else is clearly hiding something. It’s hard to imagine what though, as the occupiers aren’t exactly shy about hiding their contempt for the Iraqis and their desire to trample their culture underfoot while looting their country.
Stuck in the middle of a city on a knife-edge, al-Khafaji just wants to find out what happened to his daughter. He might seem like a mild-mannered, thoughtful man, but he was also a police officer working for Saddam Hussein’s regime. When pushed, who knows what he’s capable of? After all, noir heroes do have a habit of coming out on top.
See Baghdad Central Thursdays 10.55pm from 8 April on SBS. Season 1 is also streaming at SBS On Demand.
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