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Stephen Butchard on ‘Baghdad Central,’ Its Family Core and a Modern Hero

The first scene of Channel 4’s upcoming “Baghdad Central,” created and written by Stephen Butchard and lead-directed by Alice Troughton, captures, with a jolt, the hectic hubbub of an ordinary street scene in Baghdad: One man fixes a container, banging it rhythmically as if it were a drum; there’s the table of street conversation, a car tooting, people throwing a dice, a woman selling fruit.

Produced by Fremantle’s Euston Films and sold by Fremantle, “Baghdad Central” surprises in other ways. Apart from a brief prelude, it unspools from November 2003, when Baghdad has fallen to Coalition forces, but is told majorly from the point of view of normal occupied Iraqis, especially former inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji (Waleed Zuaiter, “Omar,” “Altered Carbon”) of the Iraqi police, once an upright respected cop, and his two daughters, the gravely ill Mrouj (July Namir, “Homeland,” “Collateral”) and the estranged Sawsan (Leem Lubany, “Omar,” “Condor”).

The Americans, are the but of their barbs, barbarians who want to secure the country, have little idea how.

When Sansaw goes missing, Khafali begins to suspect she has joined the resistance. Offered a job as police by Frank Temple (Bertie Carvel, “Jonathan Strange”), an ex-British cop working for the Coalition, Khafaji accepts in order to get Green Zone medical treatment for Mrouj and also get to Sawsan before Coalition forces do.

With the wound daily tension of a mafia movie – as a collaborator, Khafali could be shot at any moment – “Baghdad Central” builds very fast into a survival thriller set in a foreign land, and told from an unusual POV, but utterly relatable as human drama. And Khafaji emerges as a hero for the times.

Kate Harwood, Butchard and Troughton serve as executive producers, Jonathan Curling (“The Secret”) as producer.

Variety talked to BAFTA-nominated Butchard (“The Last Kingdom,” “House of Saddam”) before the series’ world premiere in main International Competition at Series Mania:

My impression is that you wanted to create a series which was totally foreign in setting and main protagonists, Khafaji and  Mrouj, and totally relatable in its backbone: Khafaji’s battle to save his daughters, whatever it takes. Could you comment?

I think your impression is absolutely correct – what make this story universal or international is that at its core, is the relationship between and the love of a father for his daughters. His daughters are in danger and therefore he must and will do everything in his power to help them, in this case, survive. The backdrop of Iraq in 2003 adds a real and constant danger, as well as a political and global event that has rarely been explored from the viewpoint of an ordinary family; this adds texture, intrigue, suspense and of course threat – but the family remain front and centre.

“Baghdad Central” soon emerges as a portrait of Khafaji, described by Kate Harwood as “a hero for the modern age.” Would you agree with Kate?

I certainly wouldn’t disagree with Kate – she far too bright and clever. For me, Khafaji’s heroism evolves, he doesn’t choose to be a hero, and the only world he wishes to changes is that of his family; there is simply no avoiding the danger and hurdles that present themselves. Because he is a father, he has no choice but to take risks and keep on moving forward – but as he moves forward, he grows, facing and overcoming the dangers make him stronger, more determined and indeed he comes to realize that he should have been much braver in the past.

Set in a world which seems to be falling apart, and whose rulers are absurd,”Baghdad Central” appears to capture a broad contemporary zeitgeist. But would you agree?

I think there is a contemporary resonance; we tend to believe (or rather hope) that our leaders are smarter than us and act in our best interests – but sadly and too often, that isn’t the case. The ordinary man and woman do not give themselves enough credit – if our elected leaders behaved with the same integrity, loyalty, compassion, truthfulness and commitment of say a parent… I would envision a totally different political landscape. Unfortunately, hubris takes a role and power corrupts to a greater or lesser degree. We see this across the world and today is no different.

The series also comes in at the invasion from the POV of Iraqis who are portrayed as far more cultured than most Coalition members. Wanting to secure Iraq, the Coalition has no idea or even desire to win the hearts of its people. The music brings out a note of absurdity. Could you comment?

Yes, we see things from an Iraqi perspective – but that perspective is also familiar and grounded because it is a family’s perspective. To date, we have predominantly seen these events through the prism of politicians, soldiers and journalists, but rarely (if at all) from the POV of an ordinary family: a family that must live every minute with the consequences of the war; they must survive. What was important, was to identified and show that the love and fractures within this family are no different to the love and fractures within families worldwide – Khafaji and his daughters are us. It is the world in which they exist that changes, and as that world begins to change, as they are confronted by threat, danger and a loss of hope – as the promised liberation becomes an apparent occupation – the family too begin to change and react; rebel.

As for the Coalition personnel, the vast majority of actual boots-on-the-ground men and women, as individuals, were not absurd at all, they were predominantly professional people tasked with an impossible job. Like the Iraqis, they were failed by their leaders – who were confident of winning a fight, but had little idea how to win the peace, keep the peace or even who to trust. War, by its nature, brings fear and barbarity; but in Captain Parodi, it is important that we show a good man doing his very best by the men under his command AND the Iraqi people. He too, however, is sucked into the murky world of grey and is faced with the choice of duty and justice.

The score, I think, is brilliant and clever, evoking game-playing, intrigue and agenda’s… a “trust no-one” vibe; nothing is as it seems!

What were the main challenge of adapting Elliott Colla’s novel into a six-part series. 

Elliot’s novel was a beautiful, thoughtful inspiration. The series is derivative from the novel, but not an adaptation. The challenge in creating the series was the eternal challenge of finding a truthful and gripping story and ensuring that story is told through characters we believe in.

When will “Baghdad Central” air after Series Mania and will it air or be released elsewhere, outside the U.K.?

U.K. transmission date is in the hands of Channel 4 – whose support for the project has been quite magnificent.

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