×

Film Review: ‘Iraqi Odyssey’

Single-monikered helmer Samir uses his extended family as archetypes of the Iraqi diaspora in this overlong yet surprisingly engrossing docu.

With:
Samira Jamal Aldin, Sabah Jamal Aldin, Souhair Jamal Aldin, Jamal Al Tahir, Tanya Uldin, Samir. Voices: Ellen Wagner, Tom Zahner, Ann Malcolm, Laura Zonka. (Arabic, English, German, Russian dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3904176/reference

Revolutionary hope, coups and counter-coups, then exile: Such is the distressingly common pattern for millions of middle-class Arabs from the mid-20th century until now. Single-monikered helmer Samir uses members of his extended family as archetypes of this diaspora in his overlong yet surprisingly engrossing docu, “Iraqi Odyssey,” designed to capture the vicissitudes of Iraq’s troubled history via one clan’s personal take on the last century. The perfunctory use of 3D and excessive running time won’t attract more viewers, but fest programmers understanding the need to demystify a nationality often seen only in one-dimensional form should take a look.

Two versions of the multi-lingo pic exist: one with Arabic narration and English subtitles, the other with English voiceover and Arabic subtitles. Unfortunately, the grating delivery of the actors hired to do the English voiceover, spoken as if part of a theater production for children, requires considerable mental adjustment and won’t expand the film’s audience base. Samir’s previous docu, “Forget Baghdad,” about four Iraqi Jews, will likely have seen more traction than “Odyssey” can achieve, though as part of a growing number of pics dealing with the Arab diasporic experience (Philippe Aractingi’s “Heritages,” to name one recent example), the film occupies a valuable niche and deserves recognition.

“Odyssey” is loosely organized into three chapters, with the first two sections blending into one another as they introduce the family in both past and present forms. The Jamal Aldin clan are Sayyids, meaning they trace their descent from the Prophet and include prominent figures in Iraqi public life. Samir’s branch, starting with his grandfather, became secularists during the anti-British resistance immediately following the Arab Revolt, and later, under the aegis of the Communist Party, advocated for the fall of the Hashemite monarchy.

Post-coup stability didn’t last long, and in the coming decades the tenuous political situation resulted in many Jamal Aldins leaving the country. Samir’s mother was Swiss, so the family moved to Zurich; others led more peripatetic lives, heading to Beirut, Lausanne, Paris, Kuwait. Following his communist sympathies, Jamal Al Tahir moved to Moscow, where he remains. A family reunion in Lebanon in 1969, several years after the Ba’athist regime took control at home, had them questioning whether they’d ever return. Some, like Samir’s father, did go back, but the country under Saddam Hussein wasn’t a healthy place for a middle-class, politically progressive family of intellectuals.

The final chapter of the docu traces members in places as far-flung as Auckland, New Zealand, and Buffalo, N.Y. A few dream of returning; others have no illusions. Traveling across the globe while overcoming undoubted logistical hurdles, Samir captures his family in all their warmth and resilience, along with a hint of wistfulness, of fond remembrances when the Arab revolutions of the 1950s offered hope that an equitable, liberal society was possible. The failure of those dreams provides an inescapable, and disturbing, silent commentary on more recent unrest in the region.

Many of the facts Samir presents are fairly basic, though it does provide the Jamal Aldins with a sense of nationhood – given the similarities in general experience between this family and countless others from Lebanon, Syria, Libya and Palestine, the docu’s insistence on grounding their story in history wisely keeps the chronicle Iraq-centric. Still, the running time of two hours and 43 minutes is unquestionably self-indulgent; thankfully the clan’s charisma keeps attention from lagging too much despite frequent opportunities for trimming. Interviews are against a black background, allowing for superimpositions of words, photographs, and clips (the 3D is meant to make for more interesting and varied visual planes as accompaniment to the talking heads, yet feels superfluous). An impressive amount of archival material, nicely edited and accompanied by appropriate music tracks, acts as both family album and chronicle of a lost world.

Film Review: 'Iraqi Odyssey'

Reviewed at Abu Dhabi Film Festival (competing), Oct. 27, 2014. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — TIFF Docs; Rio de Janiero Film Festival — Panorama.) Running time: 163 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Switzerland-Germany-UAE-Iraq) A Look Now! (in Switzerland) release of a Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion, Coin Film, SRF Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen/SRG SSR, WDR Westdeutscher Rundfunk production, in association with Sanad Fund, Furat al Jamil. (International sales: Autlook Filmsales, Vienna.) Produced by Werner Schweizer, Samir. Co-producers, Herbert Schwering, Furat al Jamil. Executive producer, Joel Jent.  

Crew: Directed, written by Samir. Camera (color/B&W, HD, 3D), Lukas Strebel, Pierre Mennel, Yuri Burak, John Kelleran, Kirill Gerra, Samir, Saaeb Hadad, Ali Alfatlawi; editors, Sophie Brunner, Ali Alfatlawi, Wathiq Al Ameri, Samir; music, Maciej Sledziecki; sound (Dolby Digital 5.1), Reto Stamm, Al Seconi, Martin Wilson, Don Feigel, Roman Platanov, Maxim Malin; sound designers, Henning Hein, Jef van Even; 3D animation, Wamidh Al Ameri; line producers, Christine Kiauk, Victoria Kaskova, Anna Sharova.  

With: Samira Jamal Aldin, Sabah Jamal Aldin, Souhair Jamal Aldin, Jamal Al Tahir, Tanya Uldin, Samir. Voices: Ellen Wagner, Tom Zahner, Ann Malcolm, Laura Zonka. (Arabic, English, German, Russian dialogue)

More Film

  • Naomi Watts Thriller 'The Wolf Hour'

    Naomi Watts Thriller 'The Wolf Hour' Picked Up for U.S. by Brainstorm Media

    “The Wolf Hour,” a psychological thriller starring Naomi Watts and Jennifer Ehle, has been picked up for North America by Brainstorm Media. HanWay Films has also closed sales for a host of European and Asian territories. Directed by Alistair Banks Griffin, “The Wolf Hour” features Oscar-nominated Watts as June, a former countercultural celebrity who lives [...]

  • A Star Is Born

    'A Star Is Born' Soundtrack Surpasses Global Sales of 6 Million

    Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s onscreen chemistry continues to be felt on the official soundtrack to “A Star is Born,” which just surpassed 6 million albums sold globally and has been certified double platinum in the U.S. Released by Interscope Records in 2018, the album debuted atop the charts and remains the highest-selling album of [...]

  • monty-python-are-fifty-in-2019

    Previously Unreleased Monty Python Audio to Get Airing for Troupe's 50th Anniversary

    Michael Palin will exec-produce series of radio specials containing never-before-released audio from Monty Python as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations for the iconic comedy troupe. They will play on the BBC in the U.K. and then go out in the U.S. Palin and his fellow Pythons – John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry [...]

  • The Eight Hundred (The 800)

    Huayi Brothers' Stock Falls 8% After 'The Eight Hundred' Cancellation

    Huayi Brothers’ stock fell by more than 8% on Wednesday, the day after the veteran Chinese studio announced that its new war epic, “The Eight Hundred,” will not hit Chinese theaters as scheduled next week. Shares dropped from RMB5.48 to RMB5.02 overnight after Huayi said Tuesday that its summer blockbuster’s theatrical debut would be indefinitely [...]

  • Chinese actor Xu Zheng holds his

    Golden Horse Organizers Set Clashing Date With China's Golden Rooster Awards

    The prestigious Golden Horse Awards announced Wednesday that it will hold its annual ceremony in Taiwan on the same day this year as China’s Communist-backed Golden Rooster Awards – which virtually assures that no major mainland Chinese talent will attend the event known as Asia’s Oscars on November 23. Hong Kong director Johnnie To will [...]

  • Berlin Film Festival Placeholder Berlinale

    Key Berlin Film Festival Venue Set to Close - or Is It?

    The announcement that German exhibitor CineStar would close its multiplex at Berlin’s famed Sony Center in Potsdamer Platz has thrown the cinema’s participation as a key venue for the Berlin Film Festival into doubt. Whether it actually shutters, however, remains to be seen. British-based Vue International is awaiting approval from German antitrust officials on its [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content