Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 28, 2015 6:15 pm 
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The story of a modern family that is also the story of a whole country

This is the story of a highly accomplished Iraqi family, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers, from Basra and Baghdad, whose members are part of Iraq's present four-million-strong diaspora. As Jay Weissberg explains in Variety, "The Jamal Aldin clan are Sayyids, meaning they trace their descent from the Prophet and include prominent figures in Iraqi public life." This multiple-voiced narrative is a story of the entire twentieth century in Iraq, all its upheavals and governments and wars, up to right after the Iraq war of 2003. Filmmaker Samir, who married a Swiss woman and lives in Lausanne, starts with his father. He was one of seven siblings. He shows all the siblings descended from them. Six uncles and aunts, twenty cousins, and five of his own siblings. I'm not good at complicated family trees, but the digital standup ID photos of all these gives an impressive, and logical array. Samir has completed a formidable undertaking. The Odyssey of his family always fascinated him, and he carried out his own Odyssey to make this film, traveling to Baghdad, Buffalo, Moscow, Paris, London, Zurich and Aukland from his base in Lausanne. His own father married a Swiss woman while studying in London. It's that kind of family.

They all long for Iraq to be restored to the relative wholeness of before the Gulf War, after which the UN-imposed sanctions were "worse than all the wars," and Bush II's war took this country, the cradle of civilization, "back five hundred years," in the words of Samira, an aunt who lives in New Zealand and one of the spirited main narrators on camera. She was in Baghdad after the sanctions, working as a doctor. She made $3 a month. Nobody had any money.

The many participants in the film and other family members came to Switzerland to see the rough cut of Samir's film and he films them in a moving epilogue. They weep at the songs of Fairuz and at their own tales of exile. Samir's family members have been leaving Iraq continually over the past sixty years, shifting from one country to another in a narrative of dizzying complexity. I couldn't quite follow it all and the film, at two hours and forty minutes, may go on a bit too long, but it's an immense human document nonetheless and Samir negotiates his intricately interwoven historical and biographical material with impressive ease. He uses reduced-size projections of archival and family films to illustrate his various speaker's narratives, with subject headlines in English and big, beautiful Arabic letters. It's a multi-generational novel, in the form of a slide show, with music and sound effects. All the tricks of modern digital editing are manipulated to good effect.

Uncle Najah, who went to Paris to study and remained there, marrying a French woman and having several children, is not heard from. He fled Iraq early and became a sociologist and Arabic teacher, in Paris, and took part in the 1968 rebellion, and so became the hero of Samir's youtn. One of the bonds that holds this complicated story together is communism, an alternative to the Arab socialism of Nasser or the Baath Party that became Saddam Hussein's fascist rule. Jamal, another uncle, "the iron man," went to study in Moscow and was an ardent communist, but he was expelled, sought for years as an engineer to convert workers into activists in Iraq, only to have it all crumble in the chaos of dictatorship and sectarianism. (In Samir's family, Shiites and Sunnites were intermarried, and they welcomed a Swiss Christian into their midst. Viewers unfamiliar with modern Arab history may be surprised to see that till very recently no women wore veils) Jamal, who speaks Russian, Arabic, and English, is one of the main talking heads, speaking here primarily in vigorous English. Eventually he was allowed to return to Moscow, and though it tore him apart to leave his mother and female relatives, having forged lifelong bonds with a club of mountaineers during his early days in Russia, he has deep roots in Russia and doesn't want to leave.

Sabah became an opthamologist. But he too was a communist and a free-thinker, and his outspoken positions kept him from being able to practice his profession and he and his wife and children were beaten and tortured under Saddam. He has had several wives, and six children, who live in England, the US,. and Dubai. Pressured for his independence, he eventually went to Kuwait, then to Damascus, then to London, where he lives now. He is another of the main talking heads. Samir himself provides unifying narration. In the early days of the family story we see Basra and Baghdad becoming modern cities and in the Fifties, an idyllic life of big family picnics and swimming in the river -- by the boys; the girls weren't allowed to. But the women heard from are no shrinking violets.

Soheir, Samir's half sister, who is only 33, was forced to settle in Buffalo. She is fluent in English and acted as an interpreter for Iraqi refugees, but here she speaks in lively Arabic. When the deteriorating situation in Iraq forced her to leave, her effort to go to live in Switzerland and further her education there failed; she explains how coming to Buffalo as a refugee was rough at first, and, visiting her in a bombed-out looking Buffalo, Samir is saddened to realize how much her assignment here as a refugee has shrunk her career options. She was a little girl during the Gulf War, and was in Baghdad, 21 years old, in 2003, and recounts the jubilation at the fall of Saddam, despite all the innocent killed and the houses destroyed, but then the increasing horror at the looting sanctioned by the Americans and the conquerers' deliberate dismantling of the country. She longs to return to Iraq and fulfill a lifelong dream of helping the poor.

After the Gulf War, Jamal was appointed to do a UN report, and found that the war was a put-up job: contracts had been signed between Saudi and US oil companies several months before the war took place. It was an oil deal. At the end, I wanted to watch the whole 160 minutes again. There are worlds of experience and modern history in this family tale that make it pass rather quickly. Sabah, Samir, Jamal, and Sohair are lively narrators who bring an infections humor and passion into their separate but interconnected tales.

Iraq Odyssey, 161 mins., in Arabic, English, German, and Russian, debuted at Toronto Sept. 2014; nine other festivals and won awards at Abu Dhabi and Berlin. US theatrical release began 27 November 2015. Also released in Lebanon and Germany. It was the 2015 Swiss entry in the 88th Academy Awards Best Foreign Oscar competition (not nominated)


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