Q&A: Mohamed Al Daradji

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Iraqi director Mohamed Al Daradji, Variety’s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year honoree, is arguably the hardest-working filmmaker in the region.

Over the course of the past year, he has taken his film “Son of Babylon,” Iraq’s official selection for the foreign-language Oscar race, to more than 30 festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Edinburgh, Croatia and Berlin. And while doing the fest circuit, he’s been working on two new projects: a documentary and a feature.

But he’s modest about his success: “For me, today it is necessary to tell the stories of Iraq,” he says. “I am Iraqi, and this is what is important for me as a filmmaker, to show what we as Iraqis live with today to the world.

“I have to do films always to help people. If I am not making films dealing with the real issues on the ground today in Iraq, then I will not make a film. They must have a social impact.”

“Son of Babylon” is one of the first Iraqi films to have had a commercial release in the Arab world. In Kuwait, Egypt and Lebanon audiences have loved it, and it has been screened in Baghdad.

Pic follows the story of a 12-year-old Kurdish boy three weeks after the fall of the Saddam Hussein in 2003 on a journey with his grandmother to locate his father and her son, a soldier missing since the first Gulf War. It is an emotional story of hope and forgiveness illustrating the very clear reality for many Iraqis and Kurds in the aftermath of Hussein’s regime.

When “Son” screened at Sundance, a group of mothers of American soldiers missing in action or dead approached Al Daradji and cried, thanking him for showing them a human side of Iraqis and how mothers there have suffered as they themselves have suffered from the conflict.

“They were moved,” Al Daradhi says. “And I am content. For me if I die today making no more films I will be happy having made this one and seen its success.

“To complete it, as it is such a personal film to me — my auntie lost her son in the Iran-Iraq war and during post-production of ‘Son,’ my sister lost her husband. I never thought I would be able to make it after the difficulties and pain we went through to make (my first feature) ‘Ahlam’ on location in Iraq.”

During that shoot, Al Daradji says he was kidnapped twice and imprisoned by American forces.

“That was hard. But with ‘Son,’ having had that previous experience, we planned everything to the exact moment, which made it much easier to shoot,” he says.

“And then when I showed it in Iraq it was just incredible for me, because as you know we don’t have cinemas like you have in the rest of the world. In May we screened it in Babylon itself using a mobile cinema, and in Baghdad we managed to have seven releases at different venues and the reaction was amazing and positive. One thousand people came to the first showing in Baghdad.”

Al Daradji is one Arab filmmaker who has benefited from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s film fund Sanad.

“It was after showing ‘Son’ at Abu Dhabi last year that it got picked up by Sundance. Abu Dhabi supported ‘Son’ since it was just a glint in my eye, and I have received funding from Sanad for both my new projects, which is invaluable to a filmmaker like me working in extremely adverse circumstances,” Al Daradji says.

He will be screening a section of his doc “In My Mother’s Arms” in Abu Dhabi to gain further support for its post. Pic was shot in Baghdad and follows the lives of 32 orphan children who live in a one-bedroom house.

His next fiction feature is equally harrowing. With the working title of “Train Station,” it is shot in a single location in Baghdad, a train station, and follows the journey of a 23-year old female suicide bomber named Hayat (“life” in Arabic) from the point at which she is about to kill herself and 28 people with her.

“It deals with the 90 seconds before she detonates the bomb when she sees the stories of each of her victims,” he says. “Does it convince her to change her mind?

“Oh and then there’s the movie I want to make about mobile schools in Iraq, too.”

The hardest-working filmmaker in the Middle East? Hard to argue.