Born in Baghdad, Iraq, Ahmed Yassin Al-Daradji built his reputation as a sound recording artist for feature films after the US-led invasion of Iraq. He then worked as a cinematographer, screenwriter, and director for satellite stations based in the Iraqi capital. He has since directed multiple short films, including “Children of God,” a heartfelt film focusing on a football match between children that spins into something much more important. While it would remind one of the movies of Majidi and Kiarostami, “Hanging Gardens” is vastly different. Here, the director has displayed a more virulent and rough portrayal of a broken society.
Brothers Taha and As’ad lead lives that are quite below the poverty threshold. They clearly have an affectionate sibling relationship, yet the aches and pains of poverty lead the seasoned Taha to order As’ad around. They put in a lot of effort, collecting garbage from a huge dump yard – the titular Hanging Gardens – and selling it to a rather dubious businessman. As’ad uncovers pornographic magazines and subsequently a sex doll in a section of the dump yard that is only used for American waste. The revelation of the doll messes up the relationship between the brothers, but it also presents great possibilities to ascend the social ladder and unforeseen risks and worries.
The film begins with bleak imagery interspersed with moments of beauty. It is apparent that Al-Daradji strives to contest the current situation in Iraq. His country’s volatility during the US invasion has hardly improved following the withdrawal of the American army in 2011. The impoverished and marginalized, whose already fragile economic and social standing has been further degraded, stand to lose the most. The filmmaker’s aim is never to take the easy way out and merely stir up the audience. Despite the presence of the sex doll as a central motif, his concept is a comprehensive exhibition of fantasies and destiny in a land ruled by hardly gentle giants. As’ad’s story unfolds in a spirit of overwhelming intimacy, the screenplay maintains poignant sentiments throughout the film’s runtime.
Both As’ad and Amir are dreamers, but their leanings are significantly different. The exploitation of the poor is something that the children, however poor they are, do not fully grasp. They are aware of the injustice they have experienced throughout their brief lives and harbor resentment toward those who took advantage of them. However, the line separating right from wrong is just too transparent for them to notice. The poison of materialistic desire exacerbates their misunderstanding. The two become exploiters as they begin utilizing the doll for their personal gain. They start a successful, flourishing business by educating the beauty to utter seductive remarks.
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The doll, which has previously been taken advantage of and subsequent disposal of by those loathed by people like As’ad and Taha, enters a new chapter of enslavement. When As’ad eventually finds the deep scar in his moral sense that has been created by the subjugation of the humanoid object with specific human capabilities: to talk, for example, it is already too late, and he enters a vortex made dangerous by the insensitive vileness of adult insecurities. They were already surviving life with a negligible standard of safety, but here the stakes are substantially higher.
The performance of the cast is pretty adequate. One of the most seasoned performers in Iraqi cinema, Jawad Al Shakarji, portrays the villain with the perfect amount of allure, commanding both the characters to submit to him and the audience to jump to his stomps. The actor playing Taha has a difficult premise to express. He represents the older generation, who, although fully mindful of the subjugation, will think multiple times before staging a coup against his persecutors. Even the most straightforward act of talking back can destroy Taha’s life. The young can think of transformation and sociocultural revamp, but years of mistreatment and personal knowledge have robbed Taha of authority. The actor succeeds in communicating these emotions.
The selection of child actors was from the same neighborhood where the director grew up. About the importance of child actors in the film, Al-Daradji states: “They are the experts in the film’s themes and dilemmas and my creative partners. We’ve walked a fine line to convey the truth of As’ad’s story in its most intimate and poignant details. The result bears witness to what it takes not just to survive but to live with meaning and integrity in present-day Iraq.”
Al-Daradji’s debut feature film is a multinational production. It involves organizations from Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Kingdom. The filmmaker uses a smart, old-school strategy of entertaining the audience, all while portraying the depressingly exploitative nature of modern society and the humanism that lies underneath. He largely succeeds in his attempt. “Hanging Gardens” is a film to watch, with the cast’s performance-enhancing the subject matter on display.