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MIDDLE FILM FESTIVAL: Iraqi and Syrian Films

October 12, 2009

After seeing an opening night film in which half the crowd walked out and in a year where my limited opportunities to see films has left me until last night

The Middle East Film Festival

The Middle East Film Festival

calling The Hangover my favorite film of the year, I’m delighted to now call Son of Babylon my favorite film of the festival and the year so far.  The film made its international debut last night, with the director just having spent all the previous night in London getting it ready.  Son of Babylon centers on a 12-year old boy and his grandmother as they travel from northern Iraq to Babylon in search of the boy’s father, a Kurdish soldier imprisoned since the boy was born.  From Baghdad to a deserted and remote region of Iraq, the pair encounter the devastation of both the Saddam era and the U.S. invasion, but mostly they encounter the kindness of strangers suffering the same traumas, albeit from different sides of Iraq’s many fences.  The Iraqi-born director, Mohamed Al-Daradji, filmed in his homeland, casting from real life:  the grandmother is played by a woman who was imprisoned herself and continues to search for her husband, who is one of Iraq’s many missing.  The boy is from a small Kurdish village and the Al-Daradji worked with him for several months to get his breathtaking performance.  The principal crew is an international cast funded and/or trained by several international sources, including the Sundance Lab and deserved the standing ovation they received.  Inshallah, it’ll come to a theater near you, and definitely go see it—the big screen will allow you the experience of the spectacular cinematography.
Last night, I sat down to watch Syrian television director Hatem Ali’s feature film, The Long Night, with some fear that the title might be all too prophetic.  And yes, it was a slow film, but the characters hooked eveyone in the first scene:  the usual morning for four lifelong friends stuck in a Syrian prison cell together for 20 years for their anti-government views and for refusing to apologize for them.  The movie is about the night of the release of the three of the men as they journey back to their families.  The film cuts between the men, as well as several of their now adult children as they confront each other and the hyprocisies and fears that have held them together and torn them apart over the years.  Shot with great dependency on close ups and extreme close ups of the actors and food, perhaps a reflection of the director’s television background (although the sequencing of shots and the editing does not result in a television feel) the film, as the director told the audience, is political in its nature but definitely a compelling look at the after effects of  taking care of yourself at the cost of your family and your self-respect.

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