Billed as the first feature shot in Iraq in 15 years, “Zaman, the Man From the Reeds” has automatic curiosity value. A quiet picture in the Iranian realist tradition overlaid with a touch of poetry, it’s the story of a peasant who treks to Baghdad to find medicine for his wife. Shooting just before the war, director Amer Alwan had a portion of his DV material confiscated by Saddam’s authorities; the finished film shows no traces of mutilation, however. Its stark simplicity will generate more appreciation from festival auds than the general public, though small distribs may want to consider it.
A brief black-and-white opener reminds viewers that civilization in Mesopotamia dates back to 3000 B.C. and people still live in floating houses in the Tigris and Euphrates swampland. In this primitive world of reeds and water fowl, the aging Zaman (Sami Kaftan) appears saying his prayers. He lives with his wife Najma (Shadha Salim) and a melancholy orphan boy (Hussein Imad), who is still mourning his parents killed by bombing in the last Gulf war. The sound of unseen jets flying overhead reinforces the idea of death intruding on an isolated natural paradise.
Najma is ill, and a visiting doctor ominously says she’s not the only one to have strange symptoms. Zaman, who loves her tenderly, takes off rowing toward the city, in search of the rare medicine that may save her. It is a journey from an ancient world to modernity.
In his first fiction film, Alwan takes a documentarian’s delight in capturing the unglamorous atmosphere of modern Baghdad as a big, dusty traffic jam. One drug store after another turns Zaman down. When at last he locates the medicine in a Catholic clinic, bureaucracy and corruption threaten to keep him from getting it. Ending of the film has an unexpected, fable-like lyricism.
Film’s strength rests on a successful blend of fiction and documentary techniques, including a strange one: Zaman answers the questions of an unseen, off-screen interviewer. On the fictional side, Kaftan and Salem, who are stars in Iraq, use their expressive faces to deepen very simple roles.
Though forced to lense the film on digital video due to an official prohibition against importing negative stock into Iraq, cinematographer Thomas Cichawa captures breathtaking images of long narrow boats being rowed down the river, with palm trees against the horizon. The river’s leisurely pace is reinforced by Roger Ikhlef’s editing, stately without indulgences, and Francois Rabbath’s majestic score.