Iraqi-born filmmaker Saad Salman, in exile for more than 30 years and in France since 1976, puts an unforgettably human face on the plight of Iraq and of refugees everywhere in “Baghdad On/Off.” Like beads strung on an ever-lengthening necklace, docu, lensed in fall 2001, is composed of encounters with the disenfranchised survivors of Saddam Hussein’s oppression. Film, which won the Audience Prize at last November’s Intl. Cinema Encounters in Paris, opens theatrically in Gaul April 23, and is slated for N.Y.’s Tribeca fest in May. Timely production has a future wherever politically and culturally relevent docus are welcome.
Haunting faces and a real feel for the desert terrain — “Not a drop of rain has fallen on Iraq for three years,” is the spoken consensus — lend heft to a road docu in which helmer clandestinely enters Kurdish Iraq in hopes of reaching Baghdad to see his dying mother. Premise is mildly surreal in that any number of the people Salman encounters would give anything to get out of Iraq, whereas he’s intent on getting farther and farther in.
During two months, in a car with a well-connected but fatalistic guide (Salah Al Hamdani), Salman traverses the Kurd-controlled region of northern Iraq that’s protected by a U.N. resolution. Rest of the country is firmly under the control of Saddam’s army, whose eyes and ears are everywhere.
Braving lethal reprisals, people in Iraq testify to a status quo in which “everything is merchandise, everything can be bought and sold: even humans.” Nearly everywhere he goes, helmer is met with hospitality from people who have nothing: Kurdish and Arab refugees living in subsistence conditions stoically share their harrowing tales. Only the number of family “martyrs” — sacrificed to everything from random executions to landmines — varies. Decimation and dispossession are the watchwords.
A man whose ear was sliced off for alleged transgressions tells of others whose partial mutilations led to gangrene and death. He says he needs glasses but doesn’t know what will hold them on.
From his car window, Salman videotapes a seemingly endless wall that encircles an entire mountain where, says Hamdani, Saddam is said to have an underground prison and secret chemical factory.
Despite the tales of woe and the rabid unfairness of life in this part of the world, docu is buoyed by its poetic absurdity. Fuel is traded by the liter, not the barrel, and grenades are used as counterweights to calculate the price of produce. (1 grenade = 1 kilo.) “What if one goes off?” the helmer inquires. “It causes a lot of damage,” is the fatalistic reply.
Credits thank those who dared to be interviewed without any attempt to conceal their true identities. Despite the clandestine filming, quality of lensing is good, as is the transfer from vid to 35mm.