A family history of Iraq, and exile

At revolutionary times, optimists think of the future. When revolution crumbles, replaced by civil war and reinvigorated despotism, minds may wander back to revolutions past. 

Iraqi Odyssey,” the 2014 doc of the mono-nominal Switzerland-based Iraqi filmmaker Samir, may have been inspired by the unruly wave of hope that swept through the Arab world in 2011, and has been little in evidence since. 

It certainly takes its cue from the decadelong aftermath of the Anglo-American overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime in 2003. “Odyssey” is very personal film, one that recounts the story of the filmmaker’s family. 

The filmmaker’s father was a judge in the country’s secular law courts and his extended family, the Jamal Aldin clan, have long been part of the Sadah – those notable families of Iraq claiming decent from the Prophet Mohammad’s family. 

Samir’s branch of the Din family is comprised of progressively minded middle class Baghdadis. Coherent, well-educated critics of Western hegemony over Iraq and the rest of the Arab world, the Dins were also imbued with the culture of the countries whose policies they criticized. Communist Party activists, they were deeply involved in working for political change in their country. 

The doc recounts how the fortunes of individual family members rose and fell with Iraq’s political vicissitudes – from the Hashemite monarchy, though the army-led dictatorships that preceded the rise of the Baath Party and the years of repression, war, international sanctions and occupation that marked the long rule of Saddam Hussein. 

When Iraq’s petroleum-fueled authoritarianism made life – let alone a life of political activism – increasingly difficult, family members migrated, with Dins turning up in Paris and London, Los Angeles and upstate New York, Zurich, Abu Dhabi and Moscow. Like the other families in Iraq’s 4 to 5-million-strong refugee community, distance and alien surroundings strained cohesion and national identity. 

From his hundreds of relatives, Samir chose five individuals to be his film’s principal voices – Samira Jamal Aldin, Sabah Jamal Aldin, Souhair Riadh Ahmed, Jamal al-Tahir and Tanya Uldin. These figures run the gamut from charismatic to merely well-spoken. 

Jamal al-Tahir, for instance, who migrated to Moscow, remains attached to the family’s leftist heritage, though after decades in the Soviet Union and post-communist Russia, his ideological commitments have been dampened to amused wistfulness. 

The film’s title comes from poet Sabah Jamal Aldin, who reads his country’s history in terms of Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” and specifically Odysseus’ wife Penelope. Over the years it took her husband to return home with his crew, she was constantly accosted by suitors lusting for Odysseus’ throne as much as her beauty. 

“It’s sad to come home,” Sabah remarks to Samir during a visit to Iraq, “and find your wife Penelope in bed with someone else.” “Iraqi Odyssey” had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and enjoyed its regional debut a couple of months later at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. 

Two versions of the film exist. Released in 3-D, the English-language version can be annoying – because the English tends to make the organic exchanges among family members seem wooden, while the aesthetic and practical utility of the 3-D component remains unclear. 

Happily, when “Iraqi Odyssey” enjoys its Beirut premiere at Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya, it’s the Arabic version (subtitled in English) that will be projected. Samir has 17 directorial credits (and rather more production credits) to his name but much of his international reputation rests upon his 2002 documentary “Forget Baghdad.” 

That film recounts the stories of four Iraqi Jewish intellectuals who – caught in the dust storm of anti-Jewish feeling swept up in the wake of the Nakba – were forced to migrate to Israel. Leftists, deeply critical of theocratic and sectarian politics, all four have had to make their own peace with their adoptive home. 

The four also retain a yearning for Iraq as they remember it, and the ideals that bound them to the movement. “Forget Baghdad” became an unlikely cult classic in the years following Washington’s regime-change gambol through Iraq and remained a prominent item on the art house and gallery scene for years.

Indeed, the concern “Odyssey” has with national and political identity strongly echoes the work of John Akomfrah, Zineb Sedira and Penny Siopis, the filmmaker-artists whose work is now on show in Beirut’s “Unfinished Conversation” exhibition. 

The film and exhibition can be enjoyed in tandem. “Iraqi Odyssey” shares the same documentary approach as “Forget Baghdad.” 

Both films complement archival and contemporary footage with the anecdotes of a cluster of wizened storytellers, lending a human face to an episode of history that, if remembered at all, is recalled in partisan terms quite at odds with many of those who lived it.

“Odyssey” is a more ambitious project. Because the Dins had been an integral part of the country’s political life for some decades before they went into exile, “Odyssey” is effectively a history of Iraq projected through the prism of family. 

For those with a weakness for the still young history of Iraq, it makes for fascinating viewing. The post-festival cinematic career of “Odyssey” may not be long, but it will find a lively post-festival career in the classrooms of progressively minded college professors. 

The only pity in this is that the film is more engaging when projected on the big screen than on the screen of a laptop. “Odyssey” does have its shortcomings, of course, more than its predecessor. Coming in at 162 minutes, the doc lives up to the epic promise (or threat) written into is title. 

Engaging as it is, the length makes the film a challenging proposition for anyone new to Samir’s work. Yet it’s difficult to puzzle out an easy solution. Much of the length stems from the first quarter of the film, which is devoted to a detailed introduction to Samir’s dramatist personae. 

It’s tempting to imagine that much of that could be trimmed, yet, if it were, the avalanche of names and family relationships that follows would be irredeemably confusing. Similarly, while not killing the story, excising one or more of Samir’s characters would make it less whole. 

“Iraqi Odyssey” is an intriguing journey into the history of a country and into the mutable identities of an extended family. The patience required to appreciate it is amply rewarded. 

by Jim Quilty
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