Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

There is a considerable amount of hand wringing in Hollywood at the moment concerning the invasion of Iraq. While much of this is left wing in nature, there is still a tendency – as in the upcoming In The Valley Of Elah – to portray the Iraqis as little more than ciphers, glimpsed in shadowy half light, with the focus remaining squarely on the US soldiers and their thoughts, feelings and actions.

This is just one of the reasons why Mohamed Al-Daradji’s film is important and deserves to reach a much wider audience than it is likely to get with its limited arthouse release.

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A second reason is the risks he and his crew and team of non-professional actors took to shoot it. Filmed just a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein they faced very real risks during their 55-day filming schedule in Baghdad, so much so that the press release accompanying the film says Al-Daradji “found it necessary to wield an AK47 in one hand and his camera in the other”. Despite this, he and other members of his crew were still kidnapped, beaten and threatened with death by the Ba’athists.

The most compelling reason to go and see Ahlaam, however, is that it is a very good film, which, importantly, examines the lives of fully rounded Iraqi characters before and during the conflict. Alarmingly, it is also based on true stories. Beginning in 2003, in the aftermath of Baghdad’s "liberation", we see patients in a psychiatric hospital, bewildered by the bombings, struggling to maintain even the most tenuous grip on reality. At this point, they are just some of many faceless victims but we are soon whisked back to 1998, to see the beginnings of their tragedy.

Ahlaam (Aseel Adel) – the name means dreams – is a promising young English graduate. Madly in love with her fiancé, her dreams of family are shattered by the brutal Ba’athist regime and she is reduced to a shadow, clinging to memories of what might have been.

Ali (Bashir Al-Majid), meanwhile, is a career soldier, keen to serve his country and happy to jolly along his less-than-enthusiastic buddy Hassan. When Hassan reveals his thoughts about going AWOL, Ali is upbeat, telling him “military service will soon be over”. He’s right, but for the wrong reasons, as 1998’s operation Desert Storm will alter his life forever and pave the way to his incarceration in the Baghdad asylum.

It is in the mental ward that Ali and Ahlaam’s lives intersect with that of Mehdi (Mohamed Hashim), once an idealistic medical student who had his career interrupted by army conscription, thanks to his dead father’s communist leanings, but who, in 2003, finds himself with a bombed-out shell of a hospital, trying to round up patients who have fled.

This film is as gruelling as it is compelling, as we see Ahlaam wandering panic stricken in the streets, while Ali, knowing no fear, thrusts himself into the lawless city to try to find the stricken patients. By intercutting this with all that has gone before, Al-Daradji paints a picture of lives changed irrevocably by circumstance. The question: who is mad and who sane hangs over the film like a pall as we come to realise that there are many forms of psychosis.

Beautifully shot, Al-Daradji cleverly uses pastoral colours in the first portion of the movie, which give way to grey once the invasion begins. He also peppers the narrative with haunting images, such as the heart rending sight of Ali staggering under the weight of his friend, looking for help, or Ahlaam’s parents desperately trying to make a US soldier understand what they’re saying.

Filmed, for the most part, in a documentary style, a few liberties are taken. Ahlaam, for example, is still kitted out in her ill-fated wedding dress, fairly unlikely after so much time, and the idea that Mehdi would send Ali out to roam the streets looking for patients in little more than a pair of boxer shorts requires poetic licence. But, by this time, the film’s tone has become more allegorical. These three come to represent much more than themselves, as they stumble through the wreckage; each of their stories resonating with all the other tales of war – depression, violence, looting and mayhem.

No easy answers or pat conclusions are offered. Questions, like the sound of gunfire, echo in your mind and refuse to fall silent.

Reviewed on: 02 Nov 2007
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Ahlaam packshot
Psychiatric patients struggle to keep their sanity in the madness of 'post-liberation' Iraq.

Director: Mohamed Al-Daradji

Writer: Mohamed Al-Daradji

Starring: Aseel Adel, Bashir Al-Majid, Mohamed Hashim

Year: 2005

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Iraq


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