Ahlaam opens on images of American bombs raining down on Baghdad in 2003, interspersed with the frightened faces of the inmates in a mental institution of the capital. Cut back to 1998, when soldier Ali travels back to the Syrian border where he is doing his national service with his friend Hasan. Elsewhere the bright-eyed, cheerful Ahlaam is preparing for her wedding to Ahmed and dreaming about the life they will have together. But soon both Ali’s and Ahlaam’s lives change dramatically. An American bombing kills Hasan and leaves Ali traumatised. Carrying Hasan’s body across the border he is picked up by the Iraqi forces, accused of being a deserter and brutally punished. Meanwhile Ahlaam’s wedding is violently interrupted by the Baathist police who arrest Ahmed and take him away to an unknown fate, which drives Ahlaam insane with grief. Both Ahlaam and Ali end up in a mental institution in Baghdad under the care of the very humane Dr Mehdi. But when the Americans start bombing the city, the hospital is destroyed and the inmates escape. Ahlaam, still wearing her wedding dress, wanders amid the rubble of an eerily empty, ruined Baghdad, where the silence is broken only by the sound of random sniper shots. Ali, displaying some awareness of what is happening, scours the dangerous streets of the city to help Dr Mehdi round up the escaped inmates.
Director Mohamed Al Daradji had been living in exile in Europe to avoid persecution from the Baathist regime when the war broke out. In 2003 he went back to his country wanting to make a film about the plight of ordinary Iraqi people. He shot Ahlaam in Baghdad in extremely difficult conditions – not only did he have to work around curfews and electricity cuts but members of his crew were arrested both by insurgents and by the Americans, neither side believing that they were simply making a film.
Virginie Sélavy: Ahlaam is structured as a flashback, opening in a psychiatric hospital at the time of the 2003 bombing, before it goes back in time to show how the characters that are in the hospital ended up there. Why did you decide to structure the story in this way?
Mohamed Al Daradji: To be honest with you, the story chose me, I didn’t choose the story. I wrote the story in a mental institution, so I know these characters well, I spent two or three weeks with them. While I was writing there I was thinking, shall I tell the story from A to Z, or shall I twist it in an artistic way? I like to not give too much information to the audience, I like the audience to be involved in the film. I think there is a certain artistic sensibility in any human being so I try to let this feeling come out of the film and involve the audience.
VS: One of the main characters is called Ahlaam, which name means ‘dream’ and is also the title of the film. She seems to be central to what you’re showing about Iraq in general in the film.
AD: The character of Ahlaam is the one that brought me to the story. In 2003 I was watching the news about the war in Iraq while I was studying for a Master at Leeds University and I saw a reportage about a mental institution in Baghdad and how they were affected by the war. And then I saw Ahlaam – she was talking in a nonsensical way and it really shocked me. I couldn’t sleep that night. I dreamt about Ahlaam, on the street in Baghdad as you saw in the film.
VS: So Ahlaam was a real character?
AD: She was a real character, but I couldn’t meet her when I went to the mental institution in Baghdad two months after I saw the reportage. But I met another character, Ali. She wasn’t called Ahlaam. Ahlaam in Arabic means ‘dreams’. It’s not just about Ahlaam’s dreams but it’s also the dreams of the other characters, Ali’s dreams, Doctor Mehdi’s dreams, the dreams of any Iraqi who’s lived under Saddam’s regime and under the invasion. So for me it was about giving two meanings to the title: it’s the girl, and it’s also the meaning of the word.
VS: It’s a very poignant title because their dreams end up in nightmare.
AD: Sometimes you say something but you mean something different. With the name Ahlaam I was trying to say, yes, dreams, but what kind of dreams, does it end as a nightmare or does it end as a dream. And that’s why at the end of the film I leave it to the audience to decide where Ahlaam ends. It’s up to each individual member of the audience to decide. If they’re positive people, Ahlaam will be OK, and her family will get her back and there’ll be a happy end. Or if they’re negative people, they will think that Ahlaam will be killed, and this is what happens in Iraq. So I left it open for the audience. For me it’s a dream but it’s also a nightmare. It’s a nightmare mixed with dreams of how normal people would like to live but they can’t control life and this is why it ends up like we see in the film.
VS: What’s really striking is that the dreams of those people are destroyed by both the brutality of the Americans and of the Baathist regime – you don’t take sides at all. It’s more about the consequences that their actions have on these people. It shows an incredible restraint because you must have felt some kind of anger towards both sides, so how did you manage to have that restraint?
AD: I had a debate with myself – where am I standing in the middle of this chaos, which side am I on – and the answer came to me one day: I thought, you’re a filmmaker, you need to just tell the story, to show your point of view. My point of view is the human being, the human element in this story. I didn’t want to guide the audience, and tell them they should be on this side or that side. I just show you the story, I show you both sides. I want you to feel this character, to feel like she’s very close to you, like she’s like your friend or your family. I try not to take sides but to observe the situation, and to put you through the situation, take you out from wherever you are and take you to Baghdad so you can feel what these people feel. It’s very important to me that the audience feel the suffering of these people. Of course I have a lot of anger. If I shout now, I will shake the whole of London. But I try and express my anger through the way I tell the story.
VS: VS: You’d left Iraq before the war and you decided to go back to shoot the film in Baghdad. That must have been incredibly difficult.
AD: After I graduated from Leeds, I felt like going back to Iraq and trying to do something for my country, for my family, for my friends. A lot of Iraqis went back in 2003, a lot of artistic people, filmmakers, who went back to try and rebuild the country. But unfortunately, it was really difficult. There was no finance, either from the Middle-East or from the UK. To finance the film I got money from banks in Europe and Holland and small grants from Holland. The crew and cast worked for nothing. They made the film on a voluntary basis, for the country. And we faced all the difficulties of Iraq: there was only three hours of electricity a day; the process of shooting the film took 55 days, sometimes we shot just three hours because of the problems and the area where we worked. An American helicopter almost shot at us when we were building the set for the Army camp scene in the desert but thankfully they didn’t and we got permission to film. The Iraqi police arrested us because they thought we were doing a propaganda film for the insurgents and the insurgents shot at us a couple of times because they thought we were making a propaganda film for the Americans. So we were in the middle of this chaos. One week before we finished the film three members of my crew and I were kidnapped and they shot my sound recorder in the leg. They took all the equipment and I lost about 25 minutes of the sound material for the film. We were left on the streets in Baghdad. We went to the hospital and told the police about what had happened to us but they didn’t believe us. They didn’t believe that we were making a normal film, they thought that we were working for the insurgents, for Al-Qaeda. So we got arrested by the American Army and we spent five days in the green zone area where we were subjected to psychological torture by the Americans. They didn’t believe we were filmmakers. I have double nationality so the Dutch embassy got involved and got me out of prison. So it was a nightmare. But I felt this nightmare was worth it. Of course you could do it here in the UK, but there when you see the children in Iraq you feel you need to do something for these people. You can’t change things but at least you can tell their story.
VS: You basically experienced the same things that your characters go through in the film.
AD: Yes, of course. My new film is called Made in Iraq and is about the story of how we came together to make this film and what happened to us and basically what happened in Iraq between 2003 and 2007 and why it’s like this now.
VS: The actor who plays Ali, Bashir Al-Majid, was actually a freelance reporter and had been a political prisoner under Saddam Hussein. This must have brought another level of authenticity to the film.
AD: I tried to work with non-professional actors to tell the story. In 2003, when I went back to Iraq, he interviewed me for one of the newspapers in Baghdad and I told him I was going to make a film. When I went back to Iraq to shoot the film I was looking for the character of Ali. I called him and I learned about his story: he suffered under Saddam’s regime, he was a prisoner in Abu-Ghraib for five years, and he also lost his friend in the war. So we talked about all this experience and I think it came through a fantastic performance. In the workshop I made him go back to the time he spent in prison and work it out through his character. It was a very good experience.
VS: I’ve read that you had trouble finding an actress to play Ahlaam. Why was that?
AD: There isn’t much of a film industry in Iraq at the moment. We haven’t made a film since 1991. And before that the film industry was used by the government for propaganda. So between 1991 and 2003 there was no film made in Iraq. So it was difficult to find actors and to find actors who would go with you in the war zone, when there is a curfew, and you can’t go anywhere after 7pm. And then there’s the rape scene, which is difficult from a cultural point of view: people don’t show sexual scenes or sexual violence. I went to universities, schools, family, friends, relatives, to try and convince them, and none of them wanted to do it. My producer said jokingly that we should make the female character male. But I thought my film needed to be represented by a woman; women are very important in Iraqi society. So we started filming the hospital scenes with Ali the first week, and Ahlaam wasn’t there. Sometimes I was thinking about how I could change the script and make the film about Ali and Doctor Mehdi, but I thought I needed a female character. A week later they found Ahlaam for me. Aseel Adel accepted the role but on three conditions. One was to rewrite the rape scene, and I agreed – I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want to show the rape but it was an important scene; she made it shorter. The second condition was that the rapist had to be her husband in real life so the rapist in the film is played by her husband! And she had a one-year-old baby called Mustafa, and she insisted that Mustafa needed to go everywhere with us because she didn’t want to leave him at home. So we all ended up babysitting for Mustafa! (laughs) We’d have to have breaks when Mustafa needed feeding or needed to sleep or when he was crying. It was very different.
VS: And you’re filming in the real Baghdad that has been destroyed so that makes the film incredibly powerful.
AD: All you see that is destroyed is actually a set, we used some destroyed buildings but I had a really good team of designers who did a great job recreating the scenes. But filming in the real environment was important. With all the films about Iraq that you see now, Arabic and Iraqi audiences can tell that they weren’t shot in Iraq. Western audiences can’t get a feeling of the Middle-East, of what it feels like in Baghdad, but in my film, because it’s shot in Baghdad it gives you the real environment, it’s the real Tigris river, the real buildings. It’s very close to what you see on the news.
VS: The really striking thing about your film is that there’s a documentary aspect about the life of ordinary Iraqis but it goes beyond that in the sense that there’s a real attention to the artistic quality of the film. How did you manage to keep focused on the artistic side of things when shooting the film was so difficult?
AD: I tried to surround myself with a good team of people, people who believed in what we were doing. I had 20 to 25 crew members, and I treated all of them as very important to the film – there was no difference between the first assistant director and the sound recorder or the production manager. All were responsible. There was the sense that you needed to do it for your country. When we had problems they tried not to disturb me or to tell me about it but instead tried to sort it out themselves. At the same time – maybe you’ll laugh – there’s an important relationship between me and the Tigris river, and it gave me the inspiration to focus on the film. When you write a film that is so personal you can see it in your head, and then you have to translate it to the camera and to other people. For me it was like the Tigris river, I went there every day to write, smoke a cigarette and have tea and relax, thinking about the next day and how to create what I wanted. I also believe that God was behind this film. The way the film was made was unbelievable. Now when I see the film I don’t believe I made it. Some scenes in the film wouldn’t have happened without God. There’s a scene at the beginning where Ali and the soldiers push the truck as the sun is rising. I’d written it differently in the script. We couldn’t find an old Saddam Army truck because they were all destroyed so we built one but it wasn’t working very well. We were waiting for this golden moment when the sun rises and it lasts just for a minute. So all my crew and cast were waiting but when I called ‘Action!’ they couldn’t hear me because they were too far away and it was dark. I called ‘Action! Action! Action!’ but nobody replied; nothing happened. So I went to them and they said that the truck was broken and they couldn’t fix it. So I shouted and cried, God help me. And then I thought, let them push the truck, it’ll be more powerful, we don’t need to shoot the scene as I wrote it, just do it. We had one minute so I gave the instructions, it was difficult but they pushed the truck, and we had a very good scene.