Two months ago, Son of Babylon, a moving tale about a young Iraqi boy and his grandmother who go in search of her missing son, premiered at the Middle East International Film Festival. Iraqi filmmaker and the author of Son of Babylon, Mohammed Daradji tells Vijaya Cherian about the making of his film
Daradji is no stranger to the film world. In 2006, he made headlines when his first feature, Ahlaam hit the screens. A telling story about three inmates in a mental institution in Baghdad, Ahlaam mirrored the chaos and confusion of a war-torn Iraq following three decades of iron rule under Saddam Hussein. Daradji won more than 22 awards for Ahlaam and represented Iraq for both the Oscars and Golden Globe consideration in 2007.
Son of Babylon, his next feature, is also set in Iraq. From the mountains of the North to the sands of Babylon, Daradji takes us on a journey through different parts of his home country with the protagonist and his grandmother as the pair hitches rides with strangers and crosses paths with fellow pilgrims on similar quests. As the grandmother struggles to accept the truth about her missing son, the little boy Ahmed retraces the footsteps of a father he never knew. The journey will not just connect them to the past, but will also determine their future.
The idea for Son of Babylon came to Daradji in 2003 when he was walking along Al-Rashid Street in Baghdad, he says.
“As I was walking down the road, I heard the news on a radio in a nearby shop that mass graves had been discovered near Babylon. I stopped cold in my tracks as I knew of many fathers and sons of family and friends who had disappeared over the years. My thought went back to my auntie, whose son had gone missing 15 years ago. Despite these mass graves bring uncovered, many people still remained missing or unidentified. It was then that the ideas for Son of Babylon came up. I wanted to bind two generations — the older steeped in suffering; the younger bearing hope for the future. A mother’s search for her lost son; a boy’s journey to find himself and his father,” explains Daradji.
“Over four years, day and night, I prepared and wrote the script while gathering the archival footage of what had happened,” he adds.
Scripted along with another Iraqi and British script writers, Daradji set forth to make his film in Baghdad.
As a cinematographer, who graduated with a double masters from the UK in both cinematography and directing, Daradji preferred the traditional approach of shooting with 35mm.
“I am from the old school of thought so I prefer shooting with film. However, I recently saw what the digital format could do and am seriously considering shooting my next film with a digital camera,” he confides.
Filming in Iraq posed several challenges for Daradji.
For one, every single element that was required for the film had to be brought into the country including the film stock, cameras and other kit.
Secondly, filming in a country ridden with daily power cuts meant driving around with a generator all the time. Security issues also deterred Daradji’s foreign crew from staying in Iraq for too long. He had to rely on Iraqi cast and crew to make his film.
“We do not have a film industry in Iraq and that immediately means that the infrastructure you take for granted in other countries for shooting simply does not exist there. You have to plan your requirements to the last detail,” explains Daradji.
“We had more than 50 crew members and a thousand background artists. Security was a big challenge. We tried to shoot in locations where we could avoid the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police so we could shoot without interruption,” he adds.
Daradji’s woes did not end there. He had brought in three experts each from England and France to train his local crew. However, they had to fly back to their respective countries owing to security reasons.
“Basically, if I had to make my film, I realised I’d have to rely heavily on Iraqi crew and artists. But I was prepared this time. A year ago before shooting for the film, I had trained some Jordanian and Iraqi crew in Jordan at the Royal Film Commission of Jordan. I got some European filmmakers to come down and do the workshops for them. I thought we could use some Jordanians as well but for security reasons, we couldn’t use them. In the meantime, one of my friends also did several master classes, workshops and so on for some Iraqi artists as he teaches in a film school so we managed to get a lot of trained crew for the film,” he explains.
At the last stage of the movie, Daradji, however, required extra funding which came from the generous coffers of Pyramedia, an Abu Dhabi-based media house that regularly runs film workshops in different parts of the Middle East to encourage filmmaking.
“I heard about Pyramedia when I went to one of their film workshops in Saudi Arabia. A filmmaker there told me about Pyramedia so I approached them for funding and Nashwa, the CEO of Pyramedia, promised her full support,” he explains.
When watching Son of Babylon, one gets the feeling that the viewer is not permitted to identify with the characters in the film.
Daradji admits that he deliberately wanted to keep the audience detached from the characters’ journey.
“Basically, I moved the camera as the characters moved so that the point of view of the camera would be that of the audience. I wanted the audience to witness the story rather than become part of the story so that they didn’t just look at it as a film and then forget all about it. To enable this, I placed the camera in different angles and never repeated the same angles. I also shot the same scene from different angles so that the spectator’s views would be independent of the journey of the character,” explains Daradji.
In some disturbing scenes, minimum editing has been done to ensure that the reality of the situation is maintained, according to the filmmaker.
Son of Babylon received much applause from viewers at MEIFF. For many, the film offered another side of the story rarely covered in the media.
Daradji’s filmmaking journey, however, has only begun and he chiefly draws inspiration from the stories of his own country.
He has already begun work on his next film, which he hopes to complete by next year.
Format: 35mm (Shot on Kodak Vision 3, 35mm) Panavision lenses
Aspect Ratio: 2:35
Sound: Dolby 5.1 SRD
Language: Arabic & Kurdish
Editing: Avid Adrenaline.
Colour corrected at Technicolor, London.
Sound recording & mixing: Sound 24 Studios and Pinewood Studios, UK.
Director/DoP: Mohamed Al-Daradji
Screenwriters: Jennifer Norridge, Mohamed Al-Daradji, Mithal Ghazi
Producers: Isabelle Stead, Atia Al-Daradji, Mohamed Al-Daradji,Dimitri de Clercq
Co-Producer: Danny Evans, Rashid Mashawari , Bader Ben Hirsi
Executive Producers: Antonia Bird, Nashwa Al Ruwaini, Hugo Heppell