First time with Abbas Fahdel.
Sombrely comprehensive at over 330 minutes. It’s not just the runtime (and implicit decisions about respect of scale) that put me in mind of Shoah (nor the necessity for the odd snack break). AF achieves his perfectly disarming – though not entirely non-participatory – interviewing approach largely through two means: relation to the extended family at the centre of the film, and advertisement of cinematic documentation to the wider population of Baghdad and its environs. Throughout, for example, kids are consistently the most willing and forthcoming subjects, whether because they (particularly his nephew Haidar) are keen to reintroduce their Iraqi lives to their expat uncle, or because they’re jostling wide-eyed before the camera lens’ black mirror.
It’s disarmingly (possibly disconcertingly, for some) abstract and stripped-back: there is almost no narrative through-line, either overall or from scene to scene. We are rather given a silent tour of AF’s (past) world, with new characters and settings signposted with cursory captions only. The style is home-movie handicam footage, though its carefully directed and at no point does it feel Cloverfield. The obscured narratives (which feel more spontaneously realtime than post-production) give way in the second half, immediately, to impotence and external direction: the first few sequences after the interlude are of American soldiers directing the family’s car away from unnamed sequestered military zones (this is “The New Iraq”; see next para). The broad arc of city to country and back (“You’re lucky to live in nature” says Haidar to a friend in Babylon; in Baghdad there are only museums), or the familial trickle spilling into the eddies and currents of the urban markets, are replaced by shellshocked wandering among desperate and attention-hungry plaintiffs, fragmented scenes of childbirth, piecemeal poring over ruins.
“Thank god the hard times belong to history.” Rather like Waltz With Bashir, the other excellent war documentary in my recent viewing history, the theme that sticks most here is repetition of the past and the way that this effects and registers with different types of people. Not all the adults in the film share the uncanny optimism of this particular quotation; most are worriedly drawn back to the perils and privations of the previous Gulf War (see the bitter irony appreciated in connecting the two Bushes). The kids are the most fascinating and disquieting subjects here, though: they have inherited a history of conflict and live surrounded by scars but war, for them, is diffuse and abstracted. They describe war as “looking like a game”, wagging the dog both with implied toy guns and wireless controllers. Later the same children play among sandbags and trenches on the roadside (abandoned after old battles? prepared hastily for new ones?). Later still they wave blasted shells and bullet cases like dinosaur teeth in our faces with macabre amusement. Some of the realisations the people in this film come to on camera are almost alien in their level of poignancy; the graduate student daughter wanders around a memorialised shelter, bombed by the Americans in the 90s, urging her family that “we need to reconnect with our heritage before dying. Even this museum might be bombed”.
Dichotomies, like the women’s familial integration vs concerned domestic isolation before and after the invasion, accrete. The portrayals of the urban communities seem both rich and fair. There are cautious but quite revelatory investigations into Jewish assimilation into Muslim Iraqi society in the 80s which contrast, perhaps, with the cultural clashing between the Americans (on TV and in tanks) and the locals, whether in childish wonder or adult bitterness (“Some Americans are good, some are wicked,” says Haidar).
The film also makes effective use of spare and cold captioning. We are given painful insights into the fates or histories of particular characters (an old mother of long-lost sons has a few weeks to live, a visibly distressed young man is introduced as having recently lost his father to senseless military-on-civilian violence). Most poignantly, we are told quite early on (judging by the order of my notes, retrospectively) that Haidar “will be killed after the US invasion”. Of course we never forget this revelation, particularly as the boy leads us deictically around the shelter memorial, but this doesn’t stop the ending of Homeland feeling like a cold knife. I watched Takeshi Miike’s quite tiresome Dead or Alive with S recently; it’s a hard-boiled gangster piece that ends with the surprise fantastical destruction of Japan and the entire world. That conclusion will not stick with me as long as this one (I would rather compare this, tonally, with La Verité). It feels like a single calculated intrusion of artifice, like a prepared surgical incision. It pierces the preceding, almost geologically layered five hours of footage (the second half of which, to the film’s minor detriment, feels a little homogenous, comparatively) with an urgent and humanistic appeal.
A good example of why Documentary needs to be judged by adjusted criteria. Certainly a definitive Iraq War work and probably a definitive work on civilian experience of wartime.