Iraqi helmer Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji concludes his Babylonian period with the dramatically strident “In the Sands of Babylon.” Dividing its time between the fictional character searched for in the director’s “Son of Babylon,” and interviews with three traumatized survivors of Saddam Hussein’s notorious prisons, the pic is significantly weakened by invented re-creations similar in tone to those stilted dramatizations you might find on the History Channel. Such histrionics do a disservice to the very real, powerful testimony of those bearing witness to Hussein’s hellish jails. Despite having received Abu Dhabi’s prize for best feature in the Arab world, “Sands” will likely slip quietly away.
A DVD extra compiling just the interview footage of Abdul Raheem Al-Fatlawi, Bassim Mohamed and Jabar Al Ghalibi would represent the most valuable service Al-Daradji could offer to preserve the memory of events too easily forgotten in the juggernaut of recent historical traumas, which is the helmer’s stated goal. It’s certainly salutary, even necessary, to be reminded of the horrors Hussein inflicted on his people, especially in the period immediately after the First Gulf War, yet in this case, straightforward nonfiction would have served the objective best.
The very first image sets off warning bells, as hands push out of an opening in a tarp-covered truck, fingers curling and clenching while saccharine orchestrations swell on the soundtrack. The hands belong to Ibrahim (Samer Qahtan), a loyal Iraqi soldier in 1991 trying to make his way home following defeat in Kuwait. He’s been tending to wounded platoon mate Yousef (Hayder Jumaa), though when shanghaied by mistrustful Hussein troops, Ibrahim ensures his buddy remains undetected. Notwithstanding constant protestations of allegiance, the captured soldier is tossed into a nightmarish jail where he’s subjected to humiliation and torture.
Increasingly theatrical scenes are interwoven with Al-Daradji interviewing (separately) three survivors of the regime’s torture. Al-Fatlawi is a shutterbug whose photo of a mother holding pictures of her four sons, all killed, has understandably haunted the director for years. A reticent subject himself, the photographer is unable, or unwilling, to express emotion until the very end, when he brings Al-Daradji to the location of his most harrowing experiences. These sorts of recollections are far more potent than the fictionalized sequences, yet the constant back and forth undermines their power; when Bassim Mohamed says the regime killed his humanity, it lacks the full, gut-wrenching force that would have resulted from sustained focus.
Video footage of the First Gulf War and President George H.W. Bush, with images of American soldiers tossing leaflets congratulating the Iraqi people for overthrowing Hussein, are important reminders of the sense of hope, then betrayal, many Iraqis felt once the Americans exited with the job half done. “In the Sands of Babylon” saves its real invective for the Baathist regime, yet there’s a justified bitterness about the world’s abandonment after having promised the people assistance in overthrowing their dictator.
The helmer adopts a semi-naive approach in the interviews (“Why are you crying?”), which some may find unnecessary. Lensing choices in these scenes are more commendable, with subjects often shot in shadow or profile, thereby offering these emotionally scarred men, bereft of hope or faith, a sort of protection from the camera’s raw exposure. In contrast, there’s no such discretion in the Ibrahim narrative, with its overplayed brutality (which unquestionably existed but comes off as melodramatic). Ibrahim’s constant cries of “I want to see my mother” turn grating; it’s time Al-Daradji lowered the mother content in his films. Similarly, torture set to Mozart’s “Requiem” is a definite no-no.