- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2007

NEW YORK

If the Oscar for best foreign-language film were awarded to the filmmaker who overcame the greatest hardships and faced the biggest risks to bring his vision to the screen, Iraqi director Mohamed Al-Daradji would be the odds-on favorite to take home the golden statuette for his debut feature film “Ahlaam.”

It’s hard to imagine that any director ever faced more adverse conditions than Mr. Al-Daradji, who shot his film over four months in late 2004 in and around Baghdad, where blackouts, shootings and bombings were everyday occurrences.

When the power went out, he used car headlights, flashlights and candles to light his sets. Mr. Al-Daradji not only carried a camera but sometimes also an AK-47 automatic rifle loaded with blanks as a deterrent. An Iraqi policeman assigned to protect the film crew was killed in a shootout with insurgents.

As he neared the end of filming, Mr. Al-Daradji and three of his crew were kidnapped and narrowly escaped being killed by insurgent supporters of Saddam Hussein, who accused them of making a propaganda film supporting the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. Their captors were preparing to shoot them when the sound of an approaching police siren prompted them to flee. Later that same day, Mr. Al-Daradji and his crew members were abducted from a Baghdad hospital by another group of gunmen who roughed them up before turning them over to the U.S. military, who held them and treated them harshly for nearly a week on suspicion they were filming insurgent attacks for al Qaeda.

Mr. Al-Daradji persevered to complete “Ahlaam” — the title is an Arabic female name meaning dreams — which is Iraq’s official entry for this year’s Academy Awards foreign-language film competition. It’s only the second Iraqi film ever submitted in the category’s 50-year history. The first, last year’s Kurdish-language “Requiem of Snow,” was filmed in Iraq’s more secure northern provinces.

For Mr. Al-Daradji, 28, just representing his country in the Oscar competition is a source of pride. His film portrays in often graphic images how the dreams of ordinary Iraqis “just to live as normal people, to study, get married and have children” are shattered, first by the brutality of Saddam’s regime and later by the destruction brought on by the U.S. invasion in 2003.

“It’s a great feeling because as an Iraqi you need to bring the voice of your nation and your people to the international audience,” says Mr. Al-Daradji, interviewed by telephone recently from his home in Leeds, Britain. “I always dreamed about doing something for my country and thinking … how can I rebuild Iraq in my way?

“But at the same time, you feel for what your country is going through at this difficult time,” he adds.

Without any support from his hard-pressed government and only a minuscule Oscar campaign budget, Mr. Al-Daradji concedes that “Ahlaam” has little chance of being selected as one of the five foreign-language film nominees to be announced on Tuesday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This year the academy’s foreign-language film committee is screening entries from a record 61 countries, including such favorite entries as Spain’s “Volver” and Mexico’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

“Ahlaam” had its world premiere in December 2005 at the Cairo International Film Festival. Since then, Mr. Al-Daradji has shown his film at 45 festivals in 25 countries, everywhere from Brooklyn to Bangladesh.

” ‘Ahlaam’ is significant for not only being one of the first fiction films to be completed … in post-Saddam Iraq, but more importantly for being … a visually stunning, blisteringly acted film that doesn’t shy away from the harsh brutality of war, and also somehow manages to convey the basic humanity of a people pushed past breaking,” says Carl Spence, artistic director of the Seattle International Film Festival, which presented the official U.S. premiere of “Ahlaam” in May.

As a 17-year-old theater student, Mr. Al-Daradji fled Iraq in 1995 after his cousin was hanged by Saddam’s regime for opposition activities. He received asylum in Holland, where he studied filmmaking and worked as a television cameraman. Mr. Al-Daradji earned his master’s degree in cinematography in 2003 at Leeds Metropolitan University in Britain. He directed short films and commercials, dreaming of someday making his first feature film.

That chance came after Saddam’s fall when Mr. Al-Daradji returned to Baghdad in August 2003 to see his family for the first time in eight years. His “Ahlaam” screenplay took shape after he volunteered at a psychiatric hospital and heard the stories told by staff about their patients’ experiences wandering the chaotic streets of Baghdad after U.S. bombs destroyed their ward.

Mr. Al-Daradji could not have made the film on its shoestring $300,000 budget without the help of ordinary Iraqis. His cast included both professional actors and amateurs who worked without pay — including Bashir Al-Majid, a journalist who spent 12 years in Saddam’s jails, in the role of Ali. Tribal desert sheiks and imams in their mosques offered free food and lodging; black marketeers provided U.S. Army uniforms; and hundreds of people volunteered as extras.

As for the Oscars, Mr. Al-Daradji can only dream of what he might say if he got a chance to deliver an acceptance speech. He would, of course, thank all the people who “suffered” with him to make “Ahlaam,” especially his mother in Baghdad, who worried herself sick during filming.

He would add: “As an Iraqi, of course, I wish that the American troops leave Iraq and Iraq becomes a free country. And at that time, I will invite all the American people to come visit Iraq as guests of honor.”

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