Timely and thought-provoking, if a bit rambling, “Forget Baghdad — Jews and Arabs: The Iraqi Connection” takes a painfully ironic look at five Arab Jews caught up in a violent cultural identity clash. It casts a cold light on racial intolerance in Iraq, where four of the film’s subjects were born, and Israel, where they now live. Screened in Locarno’s Critics Week with an English voiceover and subtitles (French and German versions also exist), this eye-opening doc is sure to provoke discussion at specialized venues, colleges and TV stations searching for topical material.
Producer/filmmaker Samir (who uses no last name) narrates how he was born in the “rogue state” of Iraq and moved to Switzerland with his Jewish family when he was a child. He flies to Tel Aviv to look up four men who, like his father, were members of the Iraqi Communist Party before immigrating to Israel, along with 120,000 other Iraqi Jews, following pogroms in the 1950s.
Forced to leave their comfortable homes in Baghdad for refugee camps in Israel, they found themselves treated as dirty, uneducated Arabs, a stereotype immortalized in the popular period film “Petah Tikva.” Today all four men are writers, and all but Samir Naqqash have abandoned Arabic to write in Hebrew. All but one have left their political activities.
The filmmaker questions them closely on Mideast politics in relation to their own identities. During the Gulf War, many of Saddam Hussein’s missiles fell on Tel Aviv’s Iraqi suburb; during the current Intifada, they have sometimes been arrested as suspicious Arabs. Yet in spite of the discrimination, one writer embraces his mixed cultural background, saying he feels “like baklava — each layer of my personality loves the other.”
Docu tends to be unfocused at times, mixing historical footage with film excerpts ranging from “The Thief of Baghdad” to “Exodus,” and intercutting the Israeli writers with NYU prof Ella Shohat, interviewed in her New York apartment against the eerie backdrop of the World Trade towers. Her 1991 book on Israeli cinema caused an uproar in Israel, along with her appearance on a popular TV talkshow where she publicly discussed discrimination against the country’s Arab Jews (called the Mizrahin). Her analysis of growing up in Israel ashamed of her Arab origin is clear-sighted and chilling.
Technically, film gains from brisk editing and superimposed images that give a lot of info quickly and concisely.