A standout at the International Istanbul Film Festival - which otherwise seemed to be a rather tame affair - was the Iraqi film 'Son of Babylon', directed by Mohamed Al Daradji. A heartwrenching road movie through a country ravaged by dictatorship and war, it offers a welcomely different perspective from the current wave of American war dramas.
Set in 2003, just after the ousting of Saddam Hussein, the film follows the search of a Kurdish grandmother and her grandson for their son / father, who has been missing since the Gulf War. From the mountains of northern Iraq to Baghdad, they travel through the war-torn, wind-swept desert, past roadblocks, burning cities and desolate prisons where papers fly around as eerie reminders of the former dictatorial bureaucracy.
In this bleak post-apocalyptic landscape - all the more poignant with the knowledge that the entire film was shot on location - it seems as if the whole country is on the move looking for lost family members. The grim reality, however, is that most of the thousands, if not millions, of missing people have ended up in mass graves, of which new ones are discovered every day.
The journey of the Kurdish pair thus gradually turns into a ritual of mourning, acceptance and, reluctantly, forgiveness. Reminiscent of 'Turtles Can Fly' (reviewed here before) in its compassionate depiction of ordinary people struggling to retain their diginity in the madness of war, 'Son of Babylon' shows great sensibility for the complex emotions of unifying grief and sundering hate that overwhelm the country.
And if, like 'Turtles Can Fly', the film ends on an ambiguous note with a boy on his own facing an uncertain future, it's perhaps the most hopeful ending possible. His dream, at least, is to become a musician and not a soldier.
See also this Sundance interview with Al Daradji on making the film in Iraq.