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18th Raindance Film Festival: Highlights

Son of Babylon

18th Raindance Film Festival

Sept 29 – Oct 10 2010, Apollo, London

Raindance website

Alexander Pashby reports on the highlights of the Raindance Film Festival, starting with the impressive closing film, Mohamad Al-Daradji’s Son of Babylon.

Son of Babylon (2010)

How do you make a film about the more than a million people reported missing in Iraq since 1991, or the hundreds of thousands of bodies found in mass graves shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein? You don’t. You can’t. The mind can’t imagine such vast numbers, so instead you make a film on a human scale, telling the story of just one family as they search for a missing member. That’s exactly what director Mohamed Al-Daradji has done with Son of Babylon, the film chosen for the closing night gala of this year’s Raindance Film Festival.

Set just days after Saddam is deposed, Son of Babylon follows Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shehzad Hussen) as they journey from the Kurdish north to the still war-torn Baghdad to find Ahmed’s missing father. A comrade of Ahmed’s father has told them to look in Baghdad prison. Ahmed’s grandmother promises Ahmed that they’ll also take in the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon on the way. However, as their difficult journey progresses and they come across more and more newly unearthed mass graves, it becomes increasingly obvious that they are not going to find Ahmed’s father alive, let alone his body. And yet, they decide to carry on, going from mass grave site to mass grave site, even though the overwhelming probability is that Ahmed’s father is one of the majority of unidentifiable bodies.

Although there are subtle references to the dictator – for example a friendly ‘Uncle’ gives Ahmed and his grandmother a lift and when stopping for a toilet break, says he’s ‘going to call Saddam’ – Al-Daradji doesn’t indict Saddam directly, perhaps because the crimes are too huge and it’s too soon, but certainly to allow the audience to form their own emotional reaction as Ahmed and his grandmother’s heartbreakingly futile journey progresses.

Through the title of the film and the juxtaposition of the mass grave sites and the Hanging Gardens site, Al-Daradji is saying, look how far we have fallen since King Nebuchadnezzar II made the desert bloom in the name of love. However, the film is less concerned with blame than with sympathy for the Iraqi people as a whole. The most significant supporting character the pair meet, and subsequently forgive, is a former Republican Guard who was pressed into service as a child. Similarly, in contrast to the way the problems of race in Iraq are reported in the West, people from all tribes help Ahmed’s grandmother even though she doesn’t speak Arabic. Indeed, the film excels at showing the aspects of Iraqi life post-Saddam that we don’t get to see on the news, including memorable scenes on the public transport system, which would be terrifying enough without the interruption of American roadblocks.
Yasser Talib is excellent as Ahmed and is either a genius or so young and innocent that he can’t be said to be acting so much as reacting. Either way his performance is convincing and affecting. Look out for Son of Babylon as Iraq’s official entry into the Oscars 2011.

Read the interview with Mohamed Al-Daradji‘s about his previous film, Ahlaam.

Armless (2010)

Armless is a dark yet compassionate comedy about learning to tolerate the idiosyncrasies of our loved ones. Daniel London (Old Joy) stars as insurance executive John, who suffers from the real-life condition Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), which is characterised by sufferers believing that they would be happier living life as an amputee, and sometimes goes hand in hand with a willingness to amputate one or more healthy limbs. John runs away from his suburban home, hotly pursued by his wife Anna (Janel Moloney, The West Wing), to the big city because he’s read on a BIID message board that a certain plastic surgeon, a Dr Phillips, will perform the illegal surgery for him. But, of course, John turns up at the office of the wrong Dr Phillips (if the right one ever even existed) and when the doctor flatly refuses to help him, John threatens to carry out the surgery himself with a power saw he’s bought at a local hardware store.

Donoma (2010)

Donoma is the interesting, if overlong, zero-budget experimental product of a Paris-based collective led by writer/director/producer/director of photography Djinn Carranard. Apart from having an awesome name, Carranard has a lot of Facebook friends and they all helped him to make this series of overlapping narratives, usually two-handers, which poses the question, ‘Is it possible to say anything new about love?’ The film doesn’t necessarily come up with any answers, but the non-professional actors – or at least the professional actors giving up their time for free – are all excellent, and scenarios such as an atheist who develops stigmata and an artist who tries a relationship with a complete stranger where they are only allowed to communicate via mime, keep the scenes from becoming too repetitive.

Vampires (2010)

A late addition to the festival, but a very welcome one, Vampires is a Man Bites Dog– style mockumentary, which manages to be the perfect antidote to the current trend for emotional vampires, a biting satire on contemporary human society and a very funny film in its own right. The Saint Germains are an upstanding family in the Belgian vampire community and have it easy: asylum seekers delivered straight to their door; corrupt police to take care of any remains; and a live-in gourmet blood bank in the form of a young girl they call ‘The Meat’ whose only job is to infuse her blood with interesting flavours for special occasions. However, that’s all about to change thanks to a rebellious teenage daughter who keeps trying to return to being human by committing suicide, and an eldest son whose indiscretion with the local vampire leader’s wife leads to the family being exiled to a far less traditional community in Canada.

Read the reviews of Legacy and Jackboots on Whitehall, which also screened at Raindance, and our feature on the Japanese strand in the festival.

Review by Alexander Pashby

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