A director and a producer in Iraqi Kurdistan battle the odds to make a feature about Saddam Hussein’s Al Anfal massacre in “Memories on Stone,” a dark tale of an inescapable past told with expected dollops of absurdist humor. Presumably full of semi-autobiographical touches, the film fits snugly into director Shawkat Amin Korki’s body of work (“Kick Off,” “Crossing the Dust”) and the long line of pics dealing with the social and personal pressures of making a relevant movie. “Memories” has been picking up awards (Abu Dhabi, UNESCO), and while weak on character development, it will continue to find hospitable fest berths.
A “Cinema Paradiso”-style prologue shows young Hussein (Birhat Hussein) visiting his projectionist father (Kamiran Betasl) during a screening of “Yol” (the art department adds a nice cinephile flourish with a “Mogambo” poster in the booth). Soldiers storm the theater saying the film is forbidden, beating Hussein’s father in tandem with the violence glimpsed on the screen below.
Cut to the present, and Hussein (Hussein Hassan), now a helmer with childhood friend Alan (Nazmi Kirik) as producer, is preparing to shoot a movie about the Kurdish genocide under Saddam Hussein. Equipment is a challenge, but they’ve secured the ideal location, the prison where Iraqi forces rounded up and tortured the local population. They also have a male lead in the extravagantly mustachioed Roj Azad (Suat Usta, terrific), a local star with connections to bigwig developers. The main headache now is casting their female lead.
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As if on cue, in walks Sinur (Shima Molaei), a teacher of handicapped children who harbors a desire to act in movies — this movie in particular. Entering the set erected in the prison courtyard, with a gallows and a giant portrait of Saddam, is a jarring experience, but she wants the role, and Hussein wants to cast her. Complications arise when her uncle Hamid (Salah Sheikh Ahmadi) nixes everything, saying it’s unseemly for Sinur, an unmarried woman, to appear onscreen. There’s only one thing to do: Hamid’s son Hiwa (Bangin Ali) is in love with his first cousin, so if she promises to marry him, she can be in the movie.
Pressures mount for everyone — from Hussein and Alan, plagued by financial, political and personal problems; to Sinur, sacrificing rather too much for the sake of a movie; to Hiwa, a small-minded man who prefers the codes of his forefathers to the confusion of today. At least shooting has begun, and Korki does an excellent job with the film-within-a-film, shot in widescreen and given the tonal texture of celluloid. What’s lacking is any discernible character development with Sinur, who seems to get weaker as the pic unspools. The discovery that her father was a prisoner in the jail they’re using is introduced in an almost melodramatic way that’s out of keeping with the rest of the film, whose undercurrent of lingering tragedy combined with contemporary corruption is more subtly handled.
Introducing Hussein’s wife and child via Skype also feels forced; less or more is needed. But happily the expansive character of Roj Azad, a figure to put Borat to shame, can’t help but leave a lingering impression in auds’ minds. Lensing by Salim Salavati (credited as Salem Salawati in “Kick Off”) is muted, subtly, almost casually registering the residue of unspeakable horrors in ways that capture their omnipresence without addressing them directly.