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Iraq's Oscar entry Ahlaam gets a UK premiere at Leeds

The first post-war film from Iraq - shot by British filmmakers - makes its UK debut in Leeds ahead of a Foreign Language Oscar campaign


Ahlaam, which means dreams or utopia, made it's British premiere in Leeds last night, and is a dazzling display of world class filmmaking using guerilla techniques. Producer-writer-director Mohamed al Daradji, formerly of Leeds Met film school, carried a camera in one hand and AK 47 in the other as he shot the film in Iraq during the height of the conflict. The crew  faced regular attacks and even a kidnapping, yet somehow managed to produce a film that could be an early outside favourite for the foreign language Oscar spot, after receiving being selected to represent Iraq.

 While Ahlaam does not shy away from the destruction and brutality of the conflict, the bulk of it is set in the period leading up to the war, as we are introduced to a collection of everyday characters going about their lives. With our view of Iraq painted almost entirely by news reports, this humble, human portrayal of people worrying about hair loss, drinking tea or learning about Shakespeare is as alien as a trip to Narnia. It's a beautiful world that I've never really seen on film -  yet one of the oldest civilisations, and the world's no.1 tea drinkers at that. Likewise, we get to see for the first time the brutality of Saddam's Ba'athist regime, of which the film makes no attempts to hide. 

And this is the film's genius. By balancing an honest depiction of the confusion and horror surrounding the invasion - which will have only worsened since - against the situation under Saddam, al Daradji avoids the obvious judgemental tones. The British and Americans are painted as no more villains than, say, an Iraqi doctor applying electro-shock-therapy to a distraught bride. What comes through, instead, is an overwhelming sense - which news reports rarely capture - that these are humans beings, agonisingly like ourselves, struggling to make sense of unimaginable circumstances.

And as such, the film urgently needs to be seen by anyone who has an opinion on the conflcit, or would like one. Especially in countries, such as the US and UK, where as voters we have some responsibility for the current human catastrophe.

Apocolypse Now and Deer Hunter are masterpieces that can be watched time and time again from the safe position of it being historical. But Iraq is a tragedy still unfolding, potentially set to be replicated in neighbouring countries, which makes al Daradji's tender and open-hearted film all the more timely. It's rare that cinema is so relevent and vital, and al Daradji and producers Human Film - which also launched last night - deserve every support in getting this film to the widest possible audience.