Saif cannot stand hearing his mother’s name. He can’t remember what her face looks like, and he can’t remember how he knows her name – “nobody told me” – but the sound of the word drives him into a rage, and the other children like to provoke him with it. He’s getting into increasing trouble for the amount of fights he’s starting.
The constantly astonishing thing about Mohamed al-Daradji’s documentary In My Mother’s Arms is its ability to follow every turn of human stories like Saif’s. In its portrayal of the life of an unofficial orphanage in Baghdad, its inmates and its owner Husham, there is no quarter given to privacy. Secret confessions and passing moments of drama are all captured with the sort of intimacy rarely achieved by documentary films. For the most part you forget the camera is there. As we watch the protagonist Husham’s wife accuse him of neglecting his own children, it’s difficult to believe all this is taking place in front of a film crew. Only in moments of violence or chaos – a bombing a few streets away, a soldier threatening Husham at the entrance to a government building – does a telltale “point the camera there!” or “stop filming!” remind us that the director has been there all along.
As the film’s producer Isabelle Stead told Middle East LDN during London’s MENA film festival this week, “Mohammed is a very nosy director. For him there’s no full stops. We just film whatever we can, whenever we can.” Al-Daradji and his crew spent a year following the fates of the orphanage and the young boys who have found a home there, and the persistence pays off. The stories emerge in full and provide a fascinating lens through which to view the surreal everyday life of modern Iraq, and poignantly illustrate the desperate situation of its millions of motherless children.
Though the film edges extremely close to sentimentality occasionally, it does so with the tip of its tongue in its cheek – such as when slow piano music backing a moment of warmth between two of the boys turns out to be one boy practicing his keyboard. The gritty and shaky footage and flashes of backdrop – a squad of soldiers, a bullethole in a car windscreen – anchor the emotions in grim realities.
And they are realities which need to be exposed. Demonstrating the bureaucratic indifference of Iraq’s authorities to the boys’ plight, and featuring one boy’s harrowing descriptions of the sexual abuses he endured at a state orphanage, it leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the scale of Iraq’s orphan crisis. While Stead argues that any solution from outside Iraq would be “only a band-aid”, it’s clear that the film sets out to awareness. It does so far more powerfully through a window into the inner lives of a group of strangers than it ever could through hard facts and statistics.