One of a recent batch of excellent DVD releases by UK based distribution company Dogwoof, which includes Josh Fox's Gasland (2010) and Michael Madsen's Into Eternity (2010), is Iraqi-Dutch film-maker Mohamed Al Daradji's second feature Son of Babylon. The Baghdad born director, who fled to the Netherlands in 1995, made his debut with Ahlaam (Dreams,2006) before making an accompanying documentary War, God, Love and Madness (2008), both of which were centred around the turbulent period after the fall of Saddam in his native homeland. Son of Babylon continues Al Daradji's evocations of the lives of everyday Iraqi citizens struggling to make sense of past horrors, a changing political environment and social chaos in the immediate aftermath of Saddam's removal. Part fictional road movie and part reportage, Son of Babylon bears a stylistic resemblance to Mohsen Makhmalbaf's 2001 Afghan road movie Kandahar and is equally devastating in its striking visual imagery and emotional weight.
The simple yet emotionally complex narrative sees an elderly Iraqi Kurd, Um-Ibrahim (Shazada Hussein), and her young grandson Ahmed (Yasser Talib) travelling from the mountainous north through the battle ravaged country, including the bombed out Baghdad, to the sands of Babylon in search of Ahmed's missing father Ibrahim. Drafted into Saddam's army in 1991, Ibrahim never returned to his family, just one of thousands to go missing during the brutal despot's reign. The eternally hopeful Um-Ibrahim and the headstrong but naive Ahmed are determined to either find their missing loved one or at least gain some knowledge of what became of him. Following the loosely defined road movie genre conventions - random incidents, interactions with strangers, a journey as much internal as it is physical - Son of Babylon is less about entertainment and more about documentation and exposure. Saying that, it is by no means a hectoring or worthy piece, Al Daradji's verite style capturing of the physical destruction to the landscape and lyrical handling of fraught emotional matters creates a powerful, poetic and haunting excoriation of a nation's painful memories, present day problems and future uncertainties.
The casting of non-professionals in all of the roles lends an authentic edge to a very real situation, as the initially bickering but desperately dependent and affectionate odd couple make their way across the war torn landscape. Whereas many road movies' end destinations are unclear or secondary to the journey itself, Son of Babylon's final destination is crucial to the unfolding narrative. The discovery and exhumation of around 300 mass graves, the consequence of Saddam's vicious attacks on his own people, is a tragic, damning and harrowing end point for the pair, and by extension the countless other families, not only in Iraq but in all countries, to have suffered atrocities of that magnitude. By focusing on the trials of two ordinary people trying to make sense out of chaos, Al Daradji humanises the social, emotional and physical cost to the wider society caught first in the grip of a dictator and then in the aftermath of a country torn apart by war.