DUBAI: On a cold winter’s night in Utah in 2010, Mohamed Al-Daradji, perhaps the most acclaimed living Iraqi filmmaker, was approached by a group of middle-aged women. His film “Son of Babylon” had just premiered, a story about an Iraqi mother searching for her son, a soldier who never returned from battle. The women were all mothers themselves, and each of them had dealt with the same heartbreak as the woman in his film.
“One of the women came and hugged me, like from nowhere,” Al-Daradji tells Arab News. “I was just standing still, not knowing what to do. Should I hug her, should I not? And then the woman told me, ‘We are mothers of American soldiers lost in the war in Iraq. I'm crying and hugging you not just because I'm remembering my son, but because you make me feel the character of the mother is like me. We never thought about the Iraqi mothers. Thanks to your film, we can see them, we can feel them. we can understand them. They have the same emotions as we do.’”
While Al-Daradji’s films always been personal meditations on the state of his country as it reconciles with its past, struggles with its present and charts a course for its future, he often thinks back to that moment in Utah. That moment, in which two cultures looked at each other and saw the same face looking back at them, proves to Al-Daradji that it’s possible to achieve another key goal—to make the world understand Iraq as well.
There are signs that his efforts are beginning to pay off. A few years ago, Al-Daradji was reading a script about Iraqi soldiers resisting the Daesh siege on the Iraqi city of Mosul, when he noticed something curious. Even though it was written by an American, Matthew Michael Carnahan, and he kept waiting for an American character to show up and save the day — just like in every other American feature about Iraq — that moment never came. He realized it was an American film told in good faith from an entirely Iraqi point of view. Al-Daradji began to cry.
“I called Matthew and I spoke with him. I said, ‘Listen, I will help you, because I feel this is a duty for me, and it's a great story. We need to shape it, make it more authentic, make it feel that it has come from Iraqi people.’ I knew I would fight to help them, because I can see the intention of these people, and that’s what they wanted it to be,” says Al-Daradji.
The film became “Mosul,” which was just released on Netflix across the world. Al-Daradji’s contributions as an executive producer proved invaluable to the film, turning it into an American blockbuster like none before it. Not only does it feature exclusively Iraqi characters played by Arabs, the entirety of the film’s dialogue is spoken in Arabic, despite being aimed at a global audience.
Al-Daradji and Carnahan were together every day on set for months, filming in the hot Moroccan sun during Ramadan, with a number of cast members fasting. Even through the struggles of the climate, the two continued a spirited and open collaboration to ensure the film would be true to both the real-life stories on which it was based and to the culture which it was bringing to life.
“He was always listening and asking what I thought. We talked about the script, the characters, the cast, the location, and I was there with him the whole time. If I saw anything, I would come to him and say to him, ‘This can be better. This would be good.’ He was really open minded,” says Al-Daradji. “It was part of my voice, but in a different way. In ‘Son of Babylon,’ I was in full control of everything. With ‘Mosul,’ there was a vision and I needed to respect it and help this vision, and there was very great cooperation with Matthew.”
The film is also produced by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, who have directed films including “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Avengers: Endgame,” the latter of which is the highest-grossing film of all time, and produced Netflix’s film “Extraction,” which is the most popular Netflix film of all time with over 100 million views, according to the streaming giant. For two Hollywood titans to take on an Arabic-language film is hugely important to Al-Daradji.
“This is honestly is a very, very big risk for them to take. What’s the market for it? If you think about it, back before the shooting, before the production happened, when they decide to make it, there is no big market for foreign-language (Hollywood) films. I think Anthony and Joe are brave, as are the companies involved, to take this decision,” says Al-Daradji.
Al-Daradji has always been a risk-taker himself. In 1995, aged 17, he fled Iraq to make the harrowing journey to Europe in search of a better life.
“I spent one year in Europe lost, trying to find a place as a refugee, from Romania to Holland. If I had been captured by the Romanians or the Hungarians when I crossed the border, I would have been given to the Iraqi embassy, handed into (former Iraqi president] Saddam Hussein’s authority and I then would have been hanged,” says Al-Daradji.
Al-Daradji returned to Iraq in 2003, making some of the most acclaimed films in Iraq’s history, including “Ahlaam” (2005), “In the Sands of Babylon” (2013) and “The Journey” (2017). He continued to take risks, even being captured by Al-Qaeda while making “Ahlaam,” and narrowly escaping death. His efforts have been widely recognized, with three of his films chosen as Iraq’s official selection for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film (formerly Best Foreign Language Film) — the most of any Iraqi filmmaker.
“I’m not the same person I was in 2004 before the kidnapping. I wasn't at peace; I was full of dilemmas and searching for answers. I’m lucky now, because I’m still searching, but on a different level,” he says.
The next part of Al-Daradji’s journey will be a step into the past, as he looks to explore some of Iraq’s history to make sense of its uncertain present.
“I want this generation to see that it used to be a good country,” he says. “You just need to work differently. You just need to not give up. You just need to have hope. Without hope, I could not be the filmmaker I am today. I have always had the hope to keep going, and this is what we need to have today. Hope for the new generation to see a different Iraq, not escape from Iraq, nor to see it from another place.”