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Red Sea Film Festival: Best Feature Film HANGING GARDENS by Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji

Red Sea Film Festival - Hanging Gardens by Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji

After a tour of festivals, director Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji’s film Hanging Gardens had its Middle Eastern premier during the second edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival. His movie which demonstrates the importance of cinema in fostering change and breaking barriers was awarded The Golden Yusr for Best Feature Film and an award for Best Cinematic Achievement for the cinematographer Duraid Munajim.

From Jeddah, Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji proudly talked about his award-winning project made by an all-Iraqi team.

AM: How did you first prepare for the film?
By asking provocative questions to the film's characters first then about the real world of the film. Friends always call me the son of questions because of my interest in following up on what is going on in Iraq from the social and political aspect, especially as I am interested in the anthropology of the entire Arab region. In the days of writing, Margaret Glover and I used to exchange the detective shoes and the characters of the film, and after each sentence placed in the film, we would add the word Why? During pre-production days, I visited the filming locations more than once. On each visit, I walked myself in the character's shoes and tried with the child inside me to discover the world of the story.

There was not much research because the story of Hanging Gardens revolves around the neighborhoods where I was raised, I was only asking questions in a researcher's voice. Seven years of making Hanging Gardens and its characters were enough to answer most of my personal questions. During the filming days, I was committed to reading the scenes we filmed and what we planned to film the next day before going to sleep more than once while the film's heroes, Asaad and his brother Taha, were deep asleep. In the morning, I would run to the DOP Duraid Munajim’s room an hour before the crew gathered to read the scenes together and plan what we would shoot. I slept four hours a day for two months and sometimes did not even sleep.

AM: What were some of the main challenges you faced on set?
You can probably formulate the question in the following way, what are the stages where there was no challenge? I am now thinking that making Hanging Gardens was a suicide mission. I did not understand how Huda Al-Kazemi, the leading producer of the film, and I have survived. The lack of money forced Huda to mortgage her family's house to get a small amount to make the film happen. The story's authenticity was a dilemma because I insisted that the film presents an authentic Iraqi face without any influence or falling into the pitfall of orientalism. Therefore, Huda and I relied on an entire Iraqi team, and I am so proud to the point of shouting that the film is entirely made by an Iraqi team that fought the challenges with us to make the film happen. Also, finding a boy to play the role of Asaad in the film was not easy due to the sensitivity of the story, as there are families who refused for social moral reasons. With the help of a friend and by luck, I found the boy Hussein Mohamed who plays the role of Asaad.

In addition to logistical barriers, for example obtaining a sex magazine in Baghdad cost us more than three weeks of time. I was constantly challenged with how to bring sex dolls into Iraq because they are prohibited, or rather, they have not been included in a particular way legally, as such dolls are left to interpretation and are open to the authorities to deal with. The first idea was to smuggle the sex doll to Iraq through a diplomatic shipment from the Iraqi embassy in London. The idea failed before its launch as demonstrations took place in all cities of Iraq leading to the arbitrator's return to Baghdad. Circumstances left us no choice but to bring it in the official ways. The critical thing is that three dolls arrived at Baghdad’s airport. The misfortune happened when the border authorities refused to let the dolls enter Iraq for about three months. After attempts and mediations starting from the Prime Minister's office, ministers, the intelligence office and contact with significant social influence, we managed to get them into the country temporarily. Huda Al-Kazemi signed a document that stipulates a financial fine and imprisonment in case the dolls are not taken out of the country at the end of the production. The doll shipment arrived at the production site, and we celebrated their arrival in a proper crew way. When we opened the package, we discovered that one of them had been used inside the airport, which confirmed the film's significance to us.

AM: You have unconventionally tackled the topic of sexuality, knowing that such stories are still considered taboo. How do you think your film will change that?
I tried to walk a fragile line separating the taboo - not taboo, it's like a line that splits heaven and hell. I do not think that I intend the change. I have tried to question the questions, disassemble and analyze, destroy the blissful certainties, and disturb and cause anxiety for everything that is going on around me. I wanted to touch the apertures of our perceptions, away from the populist, which is the field of a social or political activist. I have tried to move in an abstract arena based on field data and information and the search for the roots of phenomena, which are non-popular issues and affairs. Coffins are a human industry that cannot withstand. As for knowledge, all I seek in Hanging Gardens is to help others dare to ask questions that can lead to actual change.

AM: How much is this doll a reflection of what's happening to the population in today's Iraq?
It's not just a sex doll alone. Hanging Gardens is a metaphoric film loaded with references reflecting what occurred after the US occupation of Iraq and what is happening now. The film demonstrates a vivid image and a looming struggle between the generation before and after the American occupation. I don't know if you noticed that there is no female character throughout the film, except for a young woman we tend from behind the walls. You can easily interpret Hanging Gardens as a story of life without women. Everything in the film has complex dimensions. The doll can represent the American presence, and at the same time, it can mean Iraqi women and their presence in some Iraqi communities. It is an excellent emotional reflection experienced by Iraqis at various levels, the most important of which is the social norms, which lead to many natural abnormalities in human behavior. Therefore, Hanging Gardens is a reflection of Iraq's population post-occupation or still occupied in reality.

AM: Why were you keen on casting non-professional actors?
The situation is a bit different in Iraq. Since my beginnings in the film industry, I have dealt with non-professional actors. Also, my love of documentary films. And because I believe that the relationship between the director and the actor is a parenting relationship that extends beyond the professional roles, I adopted dealing with non-professional actors, as Hussein Muhammad as Asaad and Karam as Amir were not professional. Most secondary characters have not seen the camera in her life, except for Wissam diah, and Jawad Al-Shakarchi, Ali Farhan are considered professional actors. Dealing with non-professional actors is like coping with clay, like sculpting statues. You deal with clay free without impurities, nor is the ego that influences some professionals.

Hanging Gardens by Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji
Synopsis: Brothers Asaad (12) and Taha (28) barely scrape a living as rubbish pickers in ‘Hanging Gardens’—the local nickname for Baghdad’s smoldering dumps—yet they make the most of what they have. Then one day, Asaad discovers an American sex doll. When he brings the taboo item home and presents her as a thing of beauty, Taha assaults his little brother for ruining their reputation. Asaad retreats to Hanging Gardens to make a new home for himself and his miraculous find. When Asaad and his friend, Amir (14), discover the doll can speak, they teach her the language of seduction in Arabic and set her to work. Business rockets, raising their profile lucratively with local teens and dangerously with the local patriarch’s enforcers. Asaad questions their exploitation of the doll, yet before he can save her from further degradation, she’s kidnapped. Asaad and Amir go after the prime suspect, only to discover that he’s turned informant. The patriarch has Asaad and Amir kidnapped so that he can exact his own cruel and humiliating punishments. Asaad survives to complete the journey he began and reconcile himself to the choices he’s made on his own terms.