Making a feature-length debut is an arduous task for any movie director, but Mohamed al Daradji faced even more challenges when he let the cameras roll in his native Baghdad.
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Making films is a tricky business. Navigating the perilous path of financial constraints, on-set mishaps and precocious actors can be an exhausting endeavour. Nothing, though, could have prepared the Iraqi director Mohamed al Daradji for his first experience of filming in his homeland.

“We were kidnapped by insurgents,” he recalls, still visibly shaken. “They shot the sound guy in the legs – he was 18 years old. They took sound material for 20 per cent of the film because we had it in our bags. I had the make-up man with me and we were beaten quite badly. They were about to shoot us, accusing us of being part of the government or the American army and making a propaganda film – [here] it’s normal to kidnap people, shoot them and throw them in the Tigris river – then we heard police sirens and the guys ran off. It was a miracle, I think”

In Baghdad in 2004, al Daradji had just returned to Iraq after almost a decade in Europe. He had left the country as a teenager in the mid1990s, pushed by the murder of his cousin, a prominent opponent of the Ba’athist regime. As a former theatre student at the Institute of Art in Baghdad, al Daradji moved first to Holland, where he took up film studies, before completing a master’s degree in Leeds, northern England, and setting up his own production company there.

Iraq had changed beyond all recognition since his departure and the post-Saddam aftershock had left behind a lawless state: an authoritarian regime may have been toppled but the ensuing power vacuum was filled by panicky US soldiers, warring Sunni and Shia militias and a weak interim government.

The day of his return was marked by suitably cinematic weather as a sandstorm swept in from the desert: “I saw Baghdad and thought ‘this is not my city’,” the 32-year-old recalls. “Everything was different: no petrol, no government, no police, no traffic lights. Just American tanks and chaos.” Needless to say, it was a far from safe location for a debut feature film. Al Daradji’s kidnapping ordeal on December 17 – he lists the events with almost encyclopaedic precision – didn’t end with the arrival of the police. Beaten and bleeding, and with the sound man in desperate need of treatment, they managed to fiag down a car to take them to the hospital. Once they arrived, it seemed they were safe. But their story had aroused the suspicions of a hospital policeman and he called the local Shia militia – working for the Americans – who took them to an interrogation centre by a cemetery and beat them for 10 hours.

“Because of my look,” he says pointing to his shock of curly, jetblack hair, “and the bleeding, they thought we were Syrian insurgents or Al Qaeda.” The nightmare continued as they were passed on to US troops who continued to rough them up over five days before the Dutch embassy intervened and secured their release.“I said: ‘I’m not going to continue making the film in Iraq. I’m leaving,’” the director continues. “But my team said: ‘No, no, no! You start the film, you finish the film in Iraq. Don’t leave it like that.’”

Al Daraji persevered under armed guard for the duration of the film and making sure a couple of AK-47s were always close at hand. Filming was completed in 2005 after a 55-day shoot. The result is a powerful neo-realist drama. Ahlaam (Dreams), centres around three characters – two mental asylum inhabitants and the doctor who cares for them. It is set on the eve of the 2003 American “liberation” of Baghdad and cleverly spliced with fiashback footage of the same characters five years earlier. Through their dream of the past, we trace the traumatic experiences that have shaped their present mental fragility: from the protagonist Ahlaam, whose husband is arrested on her wedding day, to the soldier Ali, whose attempts to save an injured colleague see him accused of desertion and locked up by a military court.

Self-financed, or at least a family affair – “My mother sold her gold and my brother sold his car,” says al Daradji – the film is clearly a labour of love, made all the more potent by the real experiences that helped shape the script. When the director first returned to Iraq, he found an uncommunicative mental patient wandering around the streets in stinking clothes. He took him back to the institution, helped wash and shave him, and spent the next two weeks returning every day to talk to people.

The characters of Ali and Dr Mehdi are based on these real-life encounters, while Ahlaam was lifted from a report on a traumatised Iraqi woman that he saw on the BBC. While the majority of the actors in the film are non-professionals, al Daradji was able to tap into the everyday suffering at the core of the Iraqi experience and extract exceptional performances. “Bashir al Majid, who plays Ali, spent time as a soldier in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and was in prison during Saddam’s regime,” says al Daradji. “So that helped me a lot to develop his character through his experiences.”

Originally released in 2007 in the UK, and opening in Spain and the US in 2008, the film has been building gradual momentum, scooping the Index on Censorship Film Award last year. Released on DVD for the first time this year, Ahlaam is a film that marks the rebirth of cinema in this troubled corner of the Middle East, once one of the region’s leading lights. Up until 1991, Iraq had produced a steady stream of films. Monopolised by the state, they tended to be dramas with strong messages about the splendour of Iraq, glorifying its leaders. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, films were used to strengthen his cult of personality. With international sanctions and the Gulf War erupting in 1991, the industry was brought to its knees as film stock and chemicals used for developing were banned – a collapse it is yet to fully recover from. Al Daradji sketches a tragic picture of this decline. “There’s no cinema,” he declares. “During the 1960s we had 275 cinemas. By the 1970s we had 210 cinemas in the whole of Iraq. Now we have 18. Just four of them are working, but in bad condition. They show rubbish – stuff you don’t want to see.”

Like many directors in developing countries, showing films to local audiences is often the hardest task. With theatres redundant and the DVD market consisting of cheap pirates, he finds it “very sad” that his films are not widely available within his own country. Yet the times Ahlaam has been shown in Iraq have been triumphant. In April 2007, 3,000 people came to watch the film over two days at the National Theatre in Baghdad and recent screenings have been organised in the north and south. “I cried so much,” he says, reaclling the showings in Baghdad. “It was amazing, amazing, amazing. The audience applauded the film about 25 times during the screening.”

His next plan is to organise a mobile cinema later in the year and travel the country showing Iraqi films that have been produced since 2003. And the number of films? Well, only a handful since the fall of Saddam. But things are beginning to change. Three movies are scheduled for release this year and new works are in the pipeline from the German-based director Oday Rasheed and Qusim Abd, who now lives in Holland. Al Daradji is at the forefront of the drive to re-establish filmmaking inside Iraq. When we met, he had just returned from a lengthy stint in Iraq – he normally divides his time equally between Baghdad and Leeds – filming his latest venture. Entitled Son of Babylon, it is an ambitious piece of cinema shot around eight cities. It tells the story of a Kurdish grandmother travelling with her grandson from the north of Iraq to the south in search of her son, a former soldier, missing since Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait 12 years earlier. As with Ahlaam, al Daradji filmed with an exclusively Iraqi crew, doubling up shooting with “a film school within a film”, offering young Iraqis the chance to gain hands-on experience.

It is all part of a drive to provide youngsters with the tools to reach the high benchmark that he has set. In 2007, he organised a series of workshops in Jordan for Iraqi, Palestinian and Jordanian film students, bringing over some of Europe’s best directors. One of the short films produced during these sessions, My Name Is Mohammed, was shown at this year’s Gulf Film Festival. Shooting Son of Babylon he repeated the idea, bringing in experts from France and Canada to train his team.

Son of Babylon is not as bleak as his debut feature. “I have hope in this film,” he says, “but in a different way – not like a happy ending or the main character kissing a lady like in an American film. A happy ending here is when people grow up and find different things in their life.” Perhaps the film is a re?ection of what he sees as the gradual upturn in the fortunes of the Iraqi people. In fact, his latest trip to his homeland was an altogether different experience to the shoot for Ahlaam. Iraq felt like a relatively functional country compared to the chaos of 2004.

Al Daradji believes that Iraq’s dark chapter of weak government and exploitation at the hands of extremists is coming to a close. Looking as though the thought is just too exciting to contain, he says he believes Iraqis have many more stories to tell through the medium of film. “I have a lot of hope for Iraq,” he says. “If I didn’t have hope, I couldn’t live as a person.”