Straightforward storytelling unadorned by artsy pretensions is one of the many selling points of “Crossing the Dust,” the latest in a growing catalog of solid, emotionally involving pics coming out of Iraqi Kurdistan. Helmer-scripter Shawkat Amin Korki uses a seemingly objective eye to unobtrusively involve the viewer, consistently building the relationship between a lost child and the two men who find him the day Saddam Hussein’s statue is toppled in Baghdad. Balanced and absorbing, pic generated positive buzz in Cairo and should go on to a healthy fest life before limited arthouse play.
The Cairo fest’s decision to include pic in its new Controversial Films sidebar is perplexing given the evenhanded treatment Amin Korki gives his subject, neither demonizing nor unequivocally praising the American invasion: Only diehard Baathists and neocons might be offended. Though born in Iraq, helmer grew up in Iran following his family’s escape in the mid-’70s, and no doubt the opening scenes showing Peshmerga (Kurdish resistance fighters) celebrating Saddam’s downfall have a particular resonance.
Somewhere in northern Iraq, Peshmerga foot soldiers Rashid (Adil Abdolrahman) and Azad (Hossein Hasan) truck in food supplies to their comrades-in-arms. Buoyed by the American invasion, Azad greets the convoy of GIs with whoops of welcome; only a grease monkey offers a cautionary word, welcoming Saddam’s fall but suggesting the U.S. is more interested in oil than democracy.
A teary young boy (Abdola Awayd) on the side of the road attracts Azad’s attention, though the kid speaks no Kurdish and only the cautious Rashid knows Arabic. Azad takes pity on the boy, who reminds him of his own missing brother. But Rashid’s animosity grows unchecked when they discover the child’s name is Saddam (the Iraqi dictator offered financial incentives to families that named their sons after him).
Despite Rashid’s increasing reluctance, Azad canvasses the neighborhood, but no one recognizes the kid. The American troops, though friendly to the Peshmerga, refuse to take the Arab child, as does the imam of the local mosque. Meanwhile, running parallel to the story and injecting a welcome note of humor, Saddam’s parents search for him, always one step behind.
In its clarity of purpose and near-iconic focus on the two men arguing over the fate of a child, set against an ever-present background of danger, “Crossing the Dust” bears more than a passing resemblance to classic Westerns. Think “3 Godfathers,” or for that matter quite a fewJohn Ford titles, with their sense of epic struggle as an almost passive accompaniment to the more immediate focus on a couple of emotionally wounded guys fighting for right to prevail.
Not that Amin Korki is working on a physically grand scale, but like the pics of fellow Iraqi Kurds Bahman Ghobadi and Hiner Saleem, he allows the burning detritus of war and paranoia to form an omnipresent backdrop to the more intimate action. There are false notes: Rashid’s inorganic flashback could have been ditched for a more directly told story, but this and other minor flaws can be chalked up to the helmer’s feature-length inexperience.
The two adult leads work perfectly off each other, and Awayd, a street kid discovered in pre-production by the producers, invites sympathy without resorting to any of the usual child actor devices. Music is sparingly and appropriately used. Subtitles, however, need improving.