In a feeling of abandonment, Sadiq (Sadiq Al-Heffner) opens Leaving Baghdad in his apartment by writing a letter to his son and describes his fear of remaining in a city that is suffocating him. He laments his old career of being Saddam Hussain’s personal cameraman and the story explores his reasons for leaving such a prosperous and secure life. As he looks out of his apartment window, he contemplates whether he’ll make it beyond the country’s border as the Iraqi Secret Services are tracking him down for retaining precious government secrets on film. Packing his bag he knows he can never return to Iraq and the audience is extremely sympathetic to his troubles. However it transpires the letters are his confessions to past sins and the film negatives are in fact torture footage he so calmingly took while the victims screamed, cried and begged for mercy. This is a story of a man who makes a journey that never had a destination in the first place.
In preparation for his exile, Sadiq visits a man who forges documents and pastes a photo of Sadiq onto a used British passport hoping it would be enough for him to cross all the European borders and land him in the UK as a refugee. He climbs a train taking him through eastern Europe and into Budapest, where he lives on scraps of food and basic accommodation until the funds to continue his journey arrive. He phones his wife daily, who resides in London, hoping she would make arrangements for him to go over there but we never hear her voice and we never truly understand her reluctancy to assist him. Wondering around the streets of Budapest he occasionally meets other Iraqi immigrants who left Baghdad years ago and share their stories of settlement. Intercutting certain moments, when Sadiq remembers his past, are footage of Iraqi citizens being beaten, tortured, beheaded and in one instant – detonated in an open field. Their identity – unknown. Their crimes – irrelevant. Their human rights – destroyed. No horror movie will ever come close to such brutality. All the while, the Secret Services have traced Sadiq’s whereabouts in Budapest and are slowly closing in on him but whether they’ll meet a man who wants to remain alive is another matter.
Leaving Baghdad premiered at last year’s Dubai International Film Festival where it received great praise for its examination of a period where a tyrant ruled not only the hearts and lives of its people – but also their minds prior to the UK/US invasion. The entire film was shot on a shoe string budget. This is indie film making at its finest for it worries not about lighting, make up, costume, high definition, sets or anything that is fundamental in making it aesthetically pleasing. It worries about just the story. And it is a tale about a man whose journey juxtaposes his attempt at escaping a government he once loved and betrayed… along with his son who he also once dearly loved and sadly betrayed. The movie shows many sides to Iraq from Saddam’s pleasure in celebrating his daughters birthday and then immediately the state of the Iraqi people on the streets, whom have nothing to celebrate in a lifeless country.
The screening was followed by a short Q&A session with director Koutaiba Al-Janabi who said he wanted to make his first feature film a personal project that reflected his feelings and emotions of an exile after living as one himself for many years. He wanted to explore a typical Iraqi person, who has trouble saying no to anything that approaches them, and placed them in an alienated world where they had only their aptitude to survive. The film was primarily shot in the UK, Iraq and Hungary – real locations where refugees travel, live and network. While the torture scenes were in fact real footages from the archives, Al-Janabi stated the story was based upon his father who was assassinated by the regime. The film helped him overcome his fears and it was his way of dealing with it.
During the Q&A, members of the audience voiced their strong opinion on how the film was one sided, that it didn’t show the ‘good’ Saddam did for the country and whether the director considered showing the atrocity and torture scenes performed by the ‘saviours’ who stamped into Iraq in 2003. It proved the bullet wounds and shrapnel scars were still fresh in the minds of some Iraqis and if anything, the film was greatly successful in evoking not only the realities and casualties of war but also the debate on where Iraq stands today and where it might be in the future. Al-Janabi quietly defended the film saying it wasn’t meant to be seen as a documentary nor was its purpose to ignite hatred towards a dictator who initiated all of this – it was the plight of a man who was dealing with guilt.
The film initially received no studio support and was funded by numerous sources. Al-Janabi was instead thankful to his wife, who was the Exec Producer, as well as close friends who assisted him in completing this film. Leaving Baghdad isn’t glossy, stylistic or even edited well but it needn’t be because when a victim appears before you, tied up, gagged and teary eyed with fear – you take this very seriously. When the guards finish taping the wires around the victim’s body, he’s left alone in the middle of a field. Perhaps to pray. Perhaps to cry. Perhaps to contemplate if his punishment truly compliment his crimes. Then, without warning, his body explodes tearing him into hundreds of pieces. Everything goes quiet. Silence swallows the entire theatre. And the audience realise their lives will never be the same again.
Thought provoking. Haunting. Unapologetic. Koutaiba Al-Janabi has made a film that no only makes those who have human rights value them even more but also enlightens the fact that humans are capable of extreme cruelty, scaring their entire psychology as well as their flesh. This is an important film. See it wherever, whenever you can.
Reviewed by Vaskar S. Kayastha