Raw emotional content trumps rough filmmaking style in human-rights docu “In My Mother’s Arms,” from sibling Iraqi helmers Atia Jabarah Al-Daradji and Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji (“Son of Babylon”). The sad tale of a good man trying to help and house war orphans in one of Baghdad’s worst neighborhoods, sans government support, compels even though not optimally presented here. A co-production with news channel Al-Jazeera English, poignant pic should find niche theatrical dates before segueing into broadcast and VOD slots. As the Toronto fest wrapped, sales agent Wide closed a deal for Canada and was in negotiations with the U.S. and U.K.
Opening title cards explain the shocking facts: Unicef statistics indicate Iraq’s most recent war has created some 800,000 orphans, but the country lacks child protection laws. There are only 24 state orphanages, and these are perceived as breeding grounds for crime; the vulnerable children institutionalized there have a one-in-three chance of being sexually and physically abused or recruited for terrorist networks.
In stark contrast to such government-run hellholes, Husham Al-Dhbe operates an independent orphan’s safe house in Sadr City, which houses 32 boys of all ages from all over the country. Working with six mainly volunteer carers in a rented two-room house, Al-Dhbe tries to provide a family atmosphere for the boys and ameliorate their emotional ills, but with his limited means, this proves increasingly difficult.
It’s ironic to see Al-Dhbe inviting the young children he finds begging on the streets to stay at the safe house, while he, too, must beg for the funds to provide their care, much of which he obtains from friends and neighbors in the local community. Although we witness his appeal to the Ministry of Social Services for government aid, none winds up coming his way due to corruption and bureaucratic inefficiencies. The search to fund his organization becomes even more crucial when Al-Dhbe receives an eviction notice from his current landlord.
Meanwhile, three of Al-Dhbe’s charges become central figures in the docu: Saif Slaam, a 7-year-old Kurdish boy with a magnificent voice, given to fighting when taunted by his classmates; Mohamed Waael, a sometimes moody teenager, member of the Iraqi youth diving team and talented musician; and Salah Abass, a 10-year-old so traumatized by his past that he cannot speak or attend a regular public school like the rest of the boys.
Purely observational approach inspires more questions than it answers; viewers would have a clearer picture with subtitles contextualizing the sectarian organizations Al-Dhbe meets with. The DV lensing is grainy and unpolished, and some moments feel awkwardly staged (particularly in the scenes in which Al-Dhbe returns to his own house and receives a “you neglect us” scolding from his wife). Nevertheless, the camera does provide a you-are-there feeling, even reeling, like the boys, from an explosion close to the safe house.
Cutting could be tighter and more focused, and the open ending would have greater impact if it directed viewers how to help Al-Dhbe’s organization.
Derived from a play the boys perform as part of a drama therapy class, the title is also the refrain from a melancholy traditional song they sing and, no doubt, the place these lonely lads most long to be.