Shot on location in an Iraq lost in blood, dust and dollars, Son of Babylon is a deeply resonant fragment of war.
But Iraq was still alienated, made exotic and dangerous by tourists with a camera and an axe to grind; Bigelow and men, De Palma and patriotism, Haggis and the 'official truth'. Even Tim Hetherington’s documentary Restrepo, by far and away the best visual chronicle of our war on terror, lingered on the allies in close-up; those we choose to liberate only glimpsed in panorama.
Mohamed Al Daradji’s only concern in Son of Babylon is Iraq – the deeply troubled country of his birth. Shot entirely on location, this is a macabre road movie of sorts that follows an old woman and her grandson journeying from Kurdistan on foot, southwards through a burning Baghdad and to Nasiriyah, where they hope to discover the whereabouts of Ahmed, their son and father gone without word for ten years after being conscripted to fight in Saddam’s army.
Imagine making a movie in an occupied country, in a place thick with suspicion of the Crusaders and of each other, with no discernible government or law and justice system, let alone a film industry. The logistics alone is enough to make your head spin. Twenty per cent of the film’s rushes were damaged during the shoot – each day’s shoot was packaged and sent back to London. Nowhere in Iraq could guarantee filming in safety.
Shazada Hussein is the film’s vessel; a Kurdish woman who had never stood before a camera before meeting Al Daradji but did not need to deliver a performance. Her husband died at the behest of Saddam.
Her grandson is the grubby-faced, sapphire-eyed Yasser Talib. He can speak Arabic; she speaks only Kurdish. Armed with his father’s flute and army coat, he is as tempestuous and effervescent as any child, and is chided at every available moment by a grandmother desperately in love. What their journey will unearth will devastate them both, but not dim their desire to be reconciled with all whom they meet.
It’s impossible not to watch this deeply humanist film without recalling Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist reclamation of their national identity – the resistance of Anna Magnani, her raven hair and coal-dark eyes as defiant and stately as a Roman coin in Rome, Open City, or Antonio’s humiliation in front of his son as an expression of a generation lost to poverty in De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.
It’s possible that Al Daradji has crafted something just as meaningful, just as heartfelt, as those icons of post-war Europe. After decades of despotic rule and 10 years of blood, dust and dollars from a liberating army of unmanned drones, Iraq has a chance now to define itself, and in the face of Talib as he plays his father’s flute and walks towards the sun of Babylon, they have an image of pure renewal on which to lean.
This is not a perfectly composed movie – it takes work – but who are we to dismiss it for its formic calculations? Sometimes a film deserves deference. Sometimes, the only justified response is to bend one’s knee. This is one of those films.