“In the Shadow of the Palms of Iraq” chronicles life in prewar Baghdad as well as during the heaviest fighting and the comparative lull after it. With startling frontline access to people and events, Aussie documaker Wayne Coles-Janess has crafted an affecting look at ordinary citizens responding to extraordinary circumstances. Strong anti-U.S. sentiment expressed by several participants could pose a marketing challenge in some territories. Well-traveled fest item has no local distrib so far, but will screen in a one-hour version later this year on Aussie pubcaster ABC.
Bookended by images taken from a U.S. helicopter gunship as it surgically eliminates a target, docu spends the rest of its time on the ground with a good cross-section of Baghdad society. Among the (unnamed) subjects are a Palestinian translator, an Olympic wrestling coach, a cobbler and a professor of Arabic poetry.
Immediately striking is the almost surreal continuance of daily life in a city which knows it’s imminently going to be bombed. Intercutting footage of pro-Saddam rallies and TV propaganda with day-to-day activities of his subjects, Coles-Janess brings the actualities of a pre-war environment into sharp focus.
Birthday parties and cafe-society meetings are shown in full swing, as well as the supremely ironic sight of children playing war-themed videogames just hours before the real thing begins. “If I die, you can broadcast me in Australia,” says one smiling woman, direct to camera.
If this calmness in the lead-up to hostilities is surprising, the outpouring of emotion once bombs start falling is not. With unrestricted access to the first wave of search-and-rescue missions, Coles-Janess delivers images only the most biased of observers could not be moved by. Docu rises above mere reportage by seeking uncensored commentaries from its participants as they process events in personal and political terms.
Pic delivers a sobering look at the confusion and chaos after the worst of the fighting has ended. One of Coles-Janess’ subjects is missing, believed arrested, and the Palestinian translator finds himself stateless, jobless and homeless. A ride on board a U.S. patrol in the downtown district is a prophetic snapshot of soldiers who, in their own words, “don’t know who we’re fighting.”
Filmed at considerable personal risk, and with interference from various authorities during production, tech work is highly accomplished.