Son of Babylon (2009) is set in 2003, in the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s fall, and tells the story of a Kurdish grandmother and the search for her son, Ibrahim, a soldier missing since the Gulf War in 1991. A letter from a fellow soldier informs her that he had been arrested and was held in Nasiriyah prison, so twelve years later she sets out with her grandson, Ahmed, on the long journey from the Kurdistan region in the north to Babylon in the south.
On the way, they encounter various characters, experience small acts of kindness from ordinary people and survive some near mishaps. In one heart stopping moment, when a Baghdad bus drives off with Ahmed inside and the grandmother running behind, you think all is lost, but helped by the cheeky cigarette seller, Qasim, (a 3-minute role but a star turn) they are reunited.
This is a road-movie with a difference. Ahmed and his grandmother travel in pick-ups, broken-down buses that run every 2 days and, on one occasion, they hitch a ride on a tractor. They travel light with a single bag, containing a change of clothes for Ahmed and his father’s flute. Throughout, Ahmed is sustained by his grandmother’s promise that he will see the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
The journey allows Mohamed Al-Daradji to paint a richly mixed portrait of Iraq – post-Saddam and under occupation: The grandiose beauty of the desert is contrasted with the frequent road blocks near the cities, the smoke from burning buildings and finally, the giant diggers uncovering the bones of Saddam’s victims in the mass graves. The grandmother’s determination to find her son is set against the revenge attacks and the ambivalence of many Iraqis towards the US troops. Speaking only Kurdish, she is rarely understood.
Everywhere, the dereliction of a country laid waste is visible, but the past atrocities committed against the Kurds are conveyed only obliquely. We learn about the Anfal – the genocidal campaign against Kurds under Saddam – from the song of a truck driver. It is Musa, a former member of the Republican Guard, who most resolutely helps the pair. The theme of forgiveness runs throughout the script and a particularly poignant scene is when Ahmed’s grandmother exonerates Musa. You can palpably feel his guilt and desire to make amends and there is the hint of redemption in his relationship with Ahmed.
Son of Babylon deservedly won two awards at last year’s 60th Berlin International Film Festival, and proves to be a hugely rewarding cinematic experience with much to admire from the haunting music of Kad Achouri, the superb performances of Yasser Talib as the 12-year-old Ahmed and Shazada Hussein as his grandmother, and some breath-taking cinematography that will remain imprinted on your retina long after the final credits roll.