A woman enters Baghdad’s central railway station on a December morning in 2006, with a bomb strapped to her stomach and her finger twitching over the trigger. Whether she leaves the station alive is the question at the heart of “The Journey,” the latest feature by acclaimed Iraqi helmer Mohamed Al-Daradji. The film debuted at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival Sept. 13.
Set on the day of Saddam Hussein’s execution, “The Journey” is a tense and harrowing psychological thriller that unspools entirely within the world of the railway station and its environs.
The setting offers Al-Daradji a vivid tableau of Iraqi life writ small. Much like the lives passing through its bustling concourse, and the country as a whole, Baghdad Central Station provides a rich metaphor as Al-Daradji depicts “a smaller Iraq [and] a smaller Middle East” struggling to get back on track.
While the helmer’s acclaimed sophomore feature, “Son of Babylon,” took him on an ambitious road-trip across his fractured country – and to more than 30 festivals, including Cannes, Sundance, and Berlin – his fifth feature eschews that movie’s wide-angle approach. The narrow lens gave Al-Daradji a controlled space to work in, mitigating the threat posed by militants, while posing the challenge of filming a movie whose dramas largely take place within the minds of its protagonists.
The process of making “The Journey,” he says, posed bigger questions about “who we are, where we are heading, what kind of journey we are taking as human beings.”
They are questions the helmer has been asking since he left Baghdad at the age of 17. Al-Daradji traveled for more than a year before finding refuge in the Netherlands. He later studied and lived in the U.K., from which he traveled to Iraq to lens his features.
In 2013, he made the decision to return to Baghdad, telling himself, “It’s my duty as an Iraqi to go back to the country and do something.” It was a daunting challenge. Lensing for “The Journey” was set to begin in 2014, when ISIS overran a large part of Iraq. Funding dried up, while the security situation across the country declined.
During shooting Al-Daradji had to rely on the help and good will of the Iraqi police and military, who offered protection for the cast and crew, even as ISIS was threatening to invade Baghdad. The plot of “The Journey” was kept under wraps, out of fears that a film about a would-be suicide bomber would offer a tantalizing target for militants.
The risks embody the challenges facing Al-Daradji and the small but vocal band of Iraqi filmmakers rebuilding their country’s cinema in the years since the fall of Hussein. Determined to film his shoot feature, “Ahlaam,” on the streets of Baghdad in 2004, Al-Daradji worked with a camera in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. He was kidnapped and tortured by Islamic militants twice in the same day.
He remained undaunted. In 2009, Al-Daradji partnered with the filmmaker Oday Rasheed to establish his country’s Independent Film Center, teaching young Iraqis to shoot on 35mm stock. Dozens have walked through the IFC’s doors; some of their films have gone on to screen in London, Tribeca, and Dubai.
Plans to build the country’s first film school, which were shelved as ISIS swept across Iraq in 2014, are moving forward again. Al-Daradji wants the school to be a beacon for filmmakers across the Arab world. The IFC is also lobbying the government to establish a national film fund.
There are hopeful signs all around. Since 2013, Al-Daradji has seen shopping malls with shiny new multiplexes opening across the country. While middle-class Iraqis mostly watch Egyptian laffers and Hollywood blockbusters, the helmer says it’s his dream “to encourage people to see Iraqi films at the cinema.”