Tuesday, December 23, 2014

'Shadow in Baghdad' reviewed

 A highly evocative documentary, although muted: that's Emile Cohen's verdict on Shadow in Baghdad, Duki Dror's acclaimed documentary film. Read his review in The Arab Review.

The film is a documentary of the story of Linda Menuhin who fled the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein in Dec 1970 when she was 20 years old to go to Israel awaiting the rest of the family to follow, which they did some 5 months later except for her father Yacoob Abdul Aziz, a well-respected lawyer who stayed awaiting the right moment.

 In 1969 the Ba'ath party staged a mass execution of nine Jews and displayed their bodies in the main square amongst cheering fans. They were scapegoats to make up for the loss of the 1967 war and the writing was on the wall for the Jews of Iraq.

  In 1970 and 1971 many Jews fled through Kurdistan in small groups arriving to Iran passing over precipitous mountains and dangerous terrain to avoid border police patrols. It was indeed a risky adventure requiring a lot of courage for, if caught, they would be subjected to the horrors and torture as Saddam’s prisoners but such was the level of despair that some 2300 out of 3000 people took that route. 

In September 1972 Yacoob Abdul Aziz was abducted by the Intelligence bureau of Saddam Hussein and disappeared without trace to Saddam’s Bastille, called Qasr Al Nihaya (Palace of the End) and nothing was heard of him since; presumed dead.  This is not an unusual story in Saddam’s Iraq, for many Iraqis had been taken by the secret police and killed without the body ever found. It is not an unusual Jewish story either as they had received more than their fair share of sufferings, oppression and persecution.  At the same time her father was abducted so were 22 other Jews.  So what prompts her to make a film 40 years after the event?  What is there to search for when there are no documents, no grave, no body of her father, just a shadow in Baghdad?

The journey starts when she was contacted on Skype by a young Iraqi journalist who read her story about her father’s abduction in her blog and her unsuccessful attempt to vote in the 2010 Iraqi elections in Jordan.  He was touched and wanted to write a column about her father and offered to do all the search and probing necessary to trace her father’s abduction and fate. She was naturally distrustful and he explained to her that his grandmother told him about the Jews who once lived in Iraq and how friendly the relationship used to be. It was evident that with all the racial and sectarian turmoil in Iraq this was a risky undertaking for him. Similarly Linda had a lot of poignant memories that were buried and she was apprehensive of reviving them all.

Our young man starts investigating, visiting their family home and coffee bars, contacting people in the business to shed some light into the disappearance. The film follows him in Iraq.  In the meantime, Linda reflects on her past and her Arab culture like many of the Arab Jews.  Reminiscing, she says that Baghdad was her home, Tigris was her river, Arabic was her language, how she liked Arabic poetry and how beautiful life was before everything turned round with the 1967 war and the advent of the Ba'ath party. She left Iraq but Iraq never left her. 

She discusses all this with her family and they start evoking memories about her father but that brought up some revelations to the family like her request for a dowry from her father as she was getting married. Her sister was stunned and she gently rebuked her. She looked up the letters from her father, which were full of clues and codes, and started analysing their meanings. She tells how she came to Israel and studied journalism in order to join the Israeli broadcasting as a news reader or a commentator but her Mizrahi accent was a handicap and the Iraqi sound was unacceptable in the Ashkenazi milieu and she joined the Arabic section of an Israeli TV channel.  She is now a well-known PR and media personality.

Her journey takes her to London and Israel where she probed more about her father, his work, his history and his abduction from members of the Jewish community who existed in Iraq at the time.  Her father took it upon himself to defend or to arrange the defence of the Jews who were arrested.  Invariably these arrests were random and not based on any sound allegations; a function of all fascist regimes. To undertake such tasks were brave and courageous and he arranged through one way or another, to secure the release of a number of Jews caught by the border patrols and that may have been the reason for his abduction, but this is speculation. His fate is finally revealed as having been taken to Qasr Al Nihaya killed by the secret police and unceremoniously dumped in a grave somewhere.

The story, for anyone who lived through the Jewish Iraqi experience, is one of many.  There were 52 such stories of abduction and hundreds of stories of the people who decided to leave their home and all their possessions to escape to save their lives or gain freedom. It is a story of courage and despair. The film portrays sincerity, honesty, frankness and truthfulness. It is a thoroughly commendable effort for a documentary and though very touching and highly evocative, for me, it was a muted drama without inspiration.   The young Iraqi journalist found nothing to reveal about the abduction and the final solution of Yacoob Abdul Aziz except its inevitability.  It was interesting that having lived through a vacuum of memories for 40 years Linda felt her roots once again.  Having resigned to the destiny of her father, she turned her attention to the fate of the young Iraqi journalist fondly concerned about the risk he had taken for a Jew.  It became noticeable that the rapport between the two crossed the borders between Arabs and Jews.

Duki Dror appears to be an accomplished director and a prolific documentary maker who seems good producing evocative films.  He directed many successful films amongst which was Café Noah which was about Arab Jewish musicians in Israel and won acclaim. Shadow in Baghdad is not a film about nostalgia but an intelligent documentary of a journey into the past honestly portrayed by Duki Dror. It documents a page in blood and tears of the history of Iraqi Jews who had lived there for 2,600 years and now in Iraq no more.  The film was well received in New York, Montreal, and London.  No doubt it will collect its fair share of awards.

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