With a civil war in Syria and uprisings across the Arab world, the invasion of Iraq and its backdrop, the US ‘War on Terror’, can sometimes seem to belong to another era. But Haydar Mousa Daffar’s ‘The Dreams of Sparrows’, which opened the London arm of the Reel Iraq festival this week, blows all the confusion, anger and optimism up to its full height again.
Shot in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion, Daffar’s film is disarmingly transparent in its objective to capture life in Iraq while allowing a group of friends to make use of their arts degrees. In contrast to the sand-swept news bulletins followers of the war will remember, the camera snakes through Baghdad’s back alleys to visit shopkeepers, schoolgirls and poets.
Daffar also has a knack for allowing each character to tell their story in their own way. The schoolgirls show off crayon drawings of helicopters and aircraft dropping bombs before grabbing their latest pictures of post-war ‘happy things’. The brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime is expressed through interviews with those in a mental asylum still unable to shake it off. As the mood sours, taxi drivers live up to their universal reputation as grumblers by listing all of Baghdad’s problems.
By focusing on ordinary Iraqis, ‘The Dreams of Sparrows’ manages to side step the well-worn arguments for and against the war. The reality it shows is much more complex. Some interviewees express a deep love for George Bush – “He is like my father”, one man declares near the beginning of the film. The news of Saddam Hussein’s capture triggers a street party.
But the hope invested in the US increasingly seems misplaced. While for many in the West, this may have been confirmed by the scenes of torture at Abu Ghraib, much of the bitterness captured in this film comes from the breakdown of infrastructure. “We live in an oil country,” drivers in an endless line for gas complain. The betrayal of Iraqis is illustrated most poignantly by Sa’ad Fahker, a co-producer and supporter of the regime change who dies in US crossfire during the making of the film.
And although the situation in Iraq may have stabilised since the film was made, it is far from the democracy promised by US neo-conservatives. Asked after the screening what he thought about his country’s politics, Daffar replied: “I am going back to Baghdad. And I value my head.”
Reel Iraq London continues until the 25 March 2013