Sunday, March 16, 2014

Film Atlas (Iraq): Son of Babylon

Country: Iraq
Title: Son of Babylon / Ibn Babil (2010)

Set in the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s fall from power in 2003, Son of Babylon is about the journey of Ahmed, a young boy, and his Kurdish grandmother as they search for any trace of Ibrahim, the generation in-between them, who disappeared during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Ahmed has not seen his father since birth. He has little concept of the politics and violence that orphaned him and drove his grandmother to the edge of madness. With childlike adaptability, but not without inevitable fear and confusion, he has adjusted to the chaos and insecurity of Iraq in transition. He has learned Arabic and serves as translator for the duo, which means there is little his grandmother can do to protect him from the harsh reality of their quest as, gradually exhausting the possibility that Ibrahim is a prisoner or patient, they head towards newly uncovered mass graves bearing hundreds of thousands of corpses. Along the way they meet Musa, a guilt-ridden ex-soldier and the first father-figure Ahmed has ever known.

Living in America I’ve been exposed to a lot of films, both documentaries and fictional works, about the 2003-2011 War in Iraq. Almost without exception these films have told the story of soldiers and reporters who come from outside the country. Son of Babylon is one of the first works that gives us a different perspective: that of Kurdish noncombatants who lived through the invasion and its aftermath. And yet, despite the inevitably contentious context, this isn’t a particularly didactic film. Its subject is highly personal: searching for a loved one who has been missing for over a decade. And it draws us in on a personal level because the acting is so authentic. The child and grandmother are separated by a vast generation gap and yet they are quietly consoled by their mutual love. An early scene where they are separated at a bus station reveals both their practical and emotional dependence. Only through their close-to-the-ground perspective do we see the exhuming of mass graves, the unreliability of public services, the constant tension of foreign occupation and the civilian necessities of post-war survival. Their smallness gives the nation-wide themes their proper nigh-unfathomable scale, but without treating our protagonists themselves as small or insignificant despite their powerlessness and the futility of their quest. 

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