Northern Iraq, 2003. Two weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Ahmed, a 12-year-old boy begrudgingly follows in the shadow of his grandmother who has heard that prisoners of war have been found alive in the south. She is determined to discover the fate of her missing son, Ahmed’s father, who never returned from the Gulf War. From the mountains of Kurdistan to the sands of Babylon, the two of them hitch rides from strangers and cross paths with fellow pilgrims, on all-too-similar journeys. Struggling to understand his grandmother’s search, Ahmed follows in the forgotten footsteps of a father he never knew.
ARAB FILM FESTIVAL: Baghdad-born, English-educated filmmaker Mohamed Al-Daradji's Son of Babylon is a deeply moving, harrowing story of a boy’s quest to find his long-missing father just after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.
It’s also an intensely personal film for Al-Daradji, whose cousin disappeared during the Iran-Iraq war, whereabouts still unknown, and whose brother-in-law vanished several years ago, captured presumably either by Al-Qaeda or the Iraqi army.
Overcoming numerous logistical difficulties, Al-Daradji, who doubled as the primary cinematographer, and his crew filmed entirely on location in Iraq, delivering a film with impressively high production values, from the wide-screen panoramas to sensitively-lit close-ups.
The performances from the two leads are extraordinarily assured and convincing considering neither had ever acted before. The screenplay by the director, first-time English writer Jennifer Norridge and Mithal Ghazi follows 12-year-old Kurdish boy Ahmed (Yasser Taleeb), whose father Ibrahim disappeared during the Gulf War in 1991.
The boy’s grandmother Um-Ibrahim (Shazada Hussein) received a letter from a former colleague of Ibrahim’s informing her he was arrested by officials of Saddam's Baath party and sent to a prison in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.
So the stooped, elderly woman and the kid set off for Nasiriyah from their home in desolate Kurdistan, initially on foot, then by hitching a ride to Baghdad, followed by journeys on dingy, crowded buses and on a tractor.
En route are numerous signs of the aftermath of war: US troops, helicopters, burning vehicles, bombed buildings and a body being dumped onto the street from the back of a truck.
In Nasiriyah they find an abandoned prison but no trace of Ibrahim. On a bus to Babylon they meet the kindly, decent Musa (Bashir Al Majid), who admits that when he was a member of Saddam's Republican Guard he was forced to kill women and children.
Their search then moves to a mosque and recently discovered mass graves and a heart-breaking finale.
Al-Daradji found Yasser Talib sitting on the steps at a music concert at a school and instinctively felt he was right for the part. To prepare the lad, he was given a month-long workshop. That gamble paid off as Yasser superbly conveys his character’s brashness, strong will and courage, with no hint of the self-consciousness that you often find with tyros.
Ironically, the casting of Talib, a Kurd, prompted the Iraqi cultural ministry to withdraw funding for the film, branding that choice as unnecessarily divisive. European film agencies including the UK Film Council and Screen Yorkshire helped make up the shortfall on top of a grant from the Sundance Institute.
As the grandmother, Hussein embodies a stoic, weary determination as well as an abiding love for Ahmed, with relatively little dialogue. Her character doesn’t speak Arabic and had to rely on her grandson to translate for her. The director chose Hussein after knocking on doors in a Kurdish village where most of the women, including her, are bereaved, and asking people to tell him their stories. Shazada had testified against Saddam and his co-defendants at their 2006 trial.
Despite the massacres and shocking injustices, Al-Daradji underpins the movie with a strong sense of forgiveness, typified by Um-Ibrahim’s conciliatory approach to the contrite Musa.
The film won the Amnesty International Film Prize and Peace Film Award at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival and the Raindance award recognising exceptional achievement by filmmakers working against the odds at the British Independent Film Awards.