In ‘Hanging Gardens’, remnants of war obscure hopes of civilization

1.1 Best Cinematic Achievement
(Photo: Red Sea International Film Festival)
It is the birthplace of civilization itself, home to the fertile crescent, and a capital of ancient wonders. But for a moment in time, the forward movement of civilization in Iraq had all but stopped. The US invasion had halted innovation, ambition, and hopes… and when the troops finally rolled out, they left behind where the elegantly draped Babylonian gardens of paradise once stood, another type of structure: heaps of rubbish.اضافة اعلان

In these modern-day “Hanging Gardens”, a boy rifles through the piles of refuse in the city of Baghdad. Twelve-year-old Asaad (Wissam Diyaa) spends his days alongside his older brother Taha, searching for treasure in the trash: metal, plastic, and the odd valuables that can be sold to a shady local patriarch (Jawad Al-Shakarji). Every once in a while, he strikes gold as he comes across the dusty pages of original American pornographic magazines. These, he sells to adults for a good price. But one day, Asaad discovers a treasure grander than any Playboy: a full-sized sex doll that can even speak.

Despite his brother’s warnings, Asaad teams up with his friend Amir to create his own business: a kind of brothel where local men can spend time alone with the blonde plastic doll, which he has cleaned and guards protectively,

“Hanging Gardens”, an Iraqi film by Ahmed Yassin Al-Daradji, puts us face-to-face with the struggle between Western idealizations and Iraqi society’s passionate anti-US sentiments. It is an exploration of a degraded society through an exposé of male sexuality, with undercurrents of the childhood hunger for normalcy and the aftereffects of war. The film, Daradji’s debut feature-length work, won the Golden Yusr for Best Feature Film and the Yusr Award for Best Cinematic Achievement at the Red International Sea Film Festival in Jeddah this month.

The cast of “Hanging Gardens” is made up of local youth living in the neighborhood where Daradji grew up. And the result is outstanding, particularly in the sensitive performance of Diyaa, forged from an effective mixture of innocence and forced maturity.

In the absence of the female finding a movie about a sex doll is a rare occurrence, finding one based in the Middle East is even more unexpected. Daradji takes advantage of this uncommon coincidence of theme and backdrop, playing with taboo topics to talk about Iraqi society in relation to masculinity. It is no coincidence that the only female character that communicates in the entire film is the sex doll: Daradji, with the support of his co-writer Margaret Glover, portrays social imbalance in the absence of the female, a theme that comes up more than once.

The director could not have selected a more poignant image. Asaad perches on the wreckage of a tank where he takes shelter, with the object of desire beside him — a desire that is expressed through the contradictions of a masculine and chauvinist universe ready to humiliate the feminine because it fundamentally fears it. Like Taha who spies on the neighbor, removing a brick from the wall — not to see her without clothes but only and simply to see her at all.

Confusion reigns supreme in this male expression, at whatever stage of development. For Asaad, the doll offers company — but it is also an object to be exploited — for which, with a naive contradiction, she demands respect.

The inflatable doll speaks English and represents that freedom (especially sexual) to which the teenager Asaad aspires. The doll therefore takes on the connotations of an unknown universe to be discovered. The next-door neighbor is the adult world also desired by Taha, but which can only be spied on from afar and left; Asaad’s older brother is therefore the archetype of a man aimed at the mortification of sexuality and, inevitably, of growth — never reaching the woman.

Tragic growth
Along with this current comes the inevitable political commentary. The story envelops its audience to generate empathy towards the protagonist and spark reflections on capitalism and the residue of the US occupation.

 After September 11, the pretext that the US administration found for invading Iraq was the presence of weapons of mass destruction. The heralded mission was the export of democracy. Judging by the film, this enterprise was devastatingly unsuccessful. The director’s choice to clash the filthy leftovers of the US operation with innocent, young ears hearing the tinned English voice of a sex doll is thought-provoking, to say the least.

Meanwhile, Asaad’s discovery opens his own questioning about his affiliation with the terrorist community, a force that accompanies the brothers as they pore through debris, present in the background as executioner, judge, and guarantor of their survival. The screenplay plays out the melody of these pressures, sowing opportunities that are either seized and then dashed, or simply left to wither. In this way, Daradji stages the tragic moments of a growth — an anguished coming-of-age — destined never to enter the full maturity of civilization.

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