Tuesday, June 15, 2004

BAGHDAD — Falah Abub has a vision of postwar Iraq, and it isn’t pretty: In the months after U.S. troops disposed of Saddam Hussein, Baghdad’s power vacuum has been filled by foreign agents and desperate gangsters.

The city has become a sort of Middle Eastern Wild West, where ordinary citizens are plagued by unprecedented lawlessness and banditry. Abductions abound, thievery is routine, and no one is untouched by tragedy.

That image is not just ripped from this morning’s headlines, it’s also the premise for “Al Badeel” (The Alternative), Iraq’s first homegrown soap opera. Think “Deadwood,” not “Arabian Nights.”

“This show is a contrast for the Iraqis,” said Mr. Abub, who is both producing and directing the melodrama. “We are trying to show them bad characters they have not met [on television] before.”

A morality play with a heavy dose of carjackings, kidnappings and murder, the series has been shooting throughout Baghdad since midspring. Weekly installments will begin airing in August.

Mr. Abub and his creative partners are convinced that even the most weary Iraqis will want to tune their new satellite dishes to a grimmer version of reality. They see the production as an artful and ultimately uplifting story.

“We will show them that evil is always punished, and that law must be observed,” Mr. Abub said on the set yesterday. “It is a reassuring message; it is about faith.”

There are a lot of evildoers waiting for their comeuppance. “Al Badeel” is chock-full of carjackings, kidnappings, murder, forgery, robbery and prostitution. Organ theft, gunplay, car chases and the occasional homosexual taunt also figure in.

Its producers acknowledge that the drama is more explicit and darker than what Iraqi viewers are used to seeing, but insist they will embrace an unsympathetic world of gangs and hard living.

“We are tackling these issues in a brave new style,” said one of the project’s writers.

“We are showing gangs and even prostitutes, which have never been shown before. I think people will be watching this very eagerly. It shows very clearly that there are consequences for ways you should not behave.”

The program will mention only in passing Saddam, a decade of painful sanctions and the invasion by foreign forces. Instead, it will focus on the effects of poverty, hopelessness and desperation in the modern world.

The show is a reaction to the chaos that engulfed Baghdad after U.S. forces toppled Saddam’s regime. Many cast and crew members said over the weekend that they were aghast at the sight of ordinary people torching, looting and turning away from the strict principles that they regard as natural behavior for their countrymen.

Basil Ali, an actor with graying dark hair and a surgically trimmed moustache, plays one of the serial’s few good guys — Haider, a businessman who returns to Iraq after the war and is shocked at what he finds.

“These groups, the gangs, come from hard conditions; they want to destroy the true morals and thwart the ambitions of the Iraqis,” he said as actors went over handwritten scripts and crews prepared for an outdoor car scene.

Mr. Ali, a stage actor more accustomed to performing Shakespeare and Harold Pinter, said he was excited to be working on a series that “harmonizes cinema and television style.”

Like many of the two dozen actors and nearly 65 crew members, Mr. Ali is delighted to be working again. Iraq has not had much of a culture industry in the past dozen years, and there are hopes that the series, produced for the Dubai-based Sharqia satellite channel, could be shown in other countries and run for several seasons.

Mr. Abub described his $60,000 budget as trivial, but said he can produce an entire series because Iraqi labor is cheap.

As dusk fell, the cast and crew assembled in the grassy garden of a house in the Mahdia neighborhood in northern Baghdad, where ample homes sit behind low brick walls. As a generator roared in the 100-degree heat, cast members went over their lines, applied makeup and smoked.

Many are veterans of Iraq’s struggling film and stage industry; others are friends picking up work where they can.

Scenes were shot quickly, in one to three takes. Curious neighbors ringed a street corner where a conversation was being shot while traffic roared by on a cross street, oblivious to the crowd and the movie lights.

Mr. Abub stressed that “Al Badeel” was inspired by real life, but he needn’t have bothered. As darkness fell across the set, he abruptly shooed away foreign visitors.

“You must go now; it is no longer safe for you to be here,” he declared. “Go home, and go safely.”

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