May 16, 2003
Geoff -- Speaking with the Enemy
A review of
Forget Baghdad focuses on four Iraqi men -- Moshe Houri, Samir Naqqash, Sami Michael, and Shimon Ballas -- as they recollect their childhood in Iraq, involvement in the Iraqi communist party, immigration to Israel, and experiences as Arab Israeli Jews. In addition to these lively, often quite humorous personal accounts, the filmmaker adds his own commentary, at times situating their stories within a broader historical context or pointing out where some claims cannot be substantiated, while at other times drawing parallels to the Iraq of his memory, his immigration to Switzerland, or his father's involvement in the Iraqi Communist party.
But the filmmaker’s personal story occupies only a small footnote; the central role is played by the four men and their spirited testimonies, which span the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century and relate how, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the French and the British colonized the region despite promises of independence made to the Arabs, who were their allies against the Ottomans. Iraq fell under British mandate, a king was crowned to the tune of "God Save The King," and haphazard borders were drawn around a territory that was home to many different ethnic and religious groups.
The image of Iraq that emerges from the interviews is one that few, at least in the Western world, would recognize -- a multicultural modern state with large Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities living harmoniously side by side. Most of the men joined the Communist party to fight against the Nazi-supported coup led by then-Prime Minister Rashid Ali in 1941. Ali and the nationalist government sought closer connections to Germany, seeing an opportunity to shake free of British colonial influence. The Germans supplied weapons and aircraft, along with Nazi propaganda. In speaking of this period, the interviewees repeatedly use a word Samir has never heard before: Farhud, the name given to the violence against Jewish Iraqis incited by the Nazis in June of 1941. By refusing to allow the British to station troops in Iraq, Ali's government acted in violation of the Anglo-Iraqi treaty of 1930; in retaliation, the British overthrew the nationalist government and re-imposed the pro-British monarchy. Attesting to the extent of Arab-Jewish collaboration, the film follows the events of a large Communist-led demonstration against the British on June 28, 1946 that resulted in one person killed by British forces. Before the protest could erupt into further violence, a curtain of black-clad prostitutes intervened between the British troops and the protestors.
Shortly after the large demonstration, the situation in Iraq became more difficult as the government began to crack down on communists and tension with the new state of Israel resulted in aggression against Jews. Some sources estimate that in the four years following Israel’s foundation in 1948, as many as 120,000 Iraqi Jews immigrated to Israel, with the four men interviewed here opting to do so to avoid the oppressive conditions for Jews and Communists. Their welcome was not always enthusiastic, however: They describe the new immigrants' alienation, most dramatically exemplified by stories of men armed with DDT spray cans greeting the Arab Jews before they could leave the airplane.
Talking with Ella Shohat, who unleashed a vicious debate in Israel with her critical essays on discrimination and the use of Arab Jewish immigrants to boost Israel's population, the film shifts into a polemic against eurocentric racism in Israel. At her apartment in Brooklyn, Shohat discusses her childhood in Israel, the discrimination she experienced as a child of Iraqi Jews, and her political activity as a teenager in the Black Panthers. She describes her disillusionment and her decision ultimately to leave Israel, showing a video documenting a dramatic confrontation over racism against Arab Israelis with a belligerent television commentator on a talk show.
While Shohat is the outspoken voice of the younger generation, the testimonies of the four older men illustrate the hardships of people who fled from one country where they experienced discrimination as Jews, to another country where they experience discrimination because they are Arabs. Forget Baghdad gives voice to its subjects' frustrations with their adoptive country, while at the same time showing how they came to adapt and make it home. They describe, for example, the amazement they experienced in the fifties upon discovering the communist paper in regular stores in Israel. Samir adds that although he searched, he was unable to find a communist paper in any Israeli stores today.
Although clearly critical of Israel, Samir stated in an interview on the film's website that he attempted to tone down this aspect of the work in view of the already dangerous situation in the region. Instead the film intends to problematize the expectations of Israelis and Arabs alike "to demonstrate that the process of migration and changing one's language shows that cultures have hybrid traits and are not some sort of fixed, static quantity."
One way Samir attempts to show these hybrid traits is through film history. Inspired by Shohat's book Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation, which addresses the history of celluloid representations of Arabs and Jews, Forget Baghdad uses cinema to look at how we view ourselves and others. Starting early in the film with a magic carpet ride from The Thief of Baghdad, Samir introduces scenes from old and new Hollywood, Egyptian, Israeli, documentary, and propaganda films, focusing on two. Shohat analyzes the first, an Israeli film called Salah Shabati about an Arab Jew's immigration to Israel and eventual assimilation there, as an example of how Israeli cinema presented propagandistic scenarios of assimilation that included stereotypical representations of Arab Jews. The second film, Fatma, Marika wa Rachel, is an Egyptian film from the 1940's that, according to Samir, presents "Arabs, Muslims and Jews together in a comic light, and plays with their cultural identities, as an exemplary portrayal of the melding of the individual cultures." In addition to these two films, he also uses scenes containing negative stereotypes of Arabs from Hollywood films such as True Lies and Lawrence of Arabia.
The actual style of Samir’s film contrasts starkly with the narrative film clips. From the initial shots in the airport, the viewer is jolted by the idiosyncratic approach to an otherwise straightforward documentary. As with jetlag, it takes time to adjust to the rapid barrage of visual material. Whereas TV documentaries often cut away from the interview, this film opts for a kind of split screen approach, keeping the speaker superimposed on a screen within the larger screen, while historical footage, family photographs, shots of the speaker's eyes, hands, or profiles cubistically float across the other half of the screen. Titles in Hebrew, Arabic, and English constantly weave across the background, fade in or appear as if typed across the screen, adding dramatic structure to the talking heads by foreshadowing, supplementing, and emphasizing the spoken words.
Many of the effects used in the film come off as affected -- home-movie-like flickering of color and light as at the end of a roll of film, shot numbers, light meter readings. Samir most likely intends to refer to the process of filmmaking and the texture of the medium itself, but more often than not the viewer is left slightly baffled by these obvious, self-reflexive gestures. In fact, some footage is quite bad: for example, blurry, slowed-down pans of crowded city streets resemble clichéd cinematic attempts to simulate extreme intoxication.
Although much of the archival material is interesting, the various layering, fading and superimpositions seem unnecessarily baroque, failing to add to the already fascinating anecdotes the speakers relate. The constant onslaught of material does not give the viewer time to understand what exactly is shown. Is it then just an expedient way of dealing with the static talking heads that stylistically decapitate most documentary filmmaking? Or perhaps Samir intends this distracted collage as a way of highlighting the manipulative aesthetic choices that already permeate the presentation of so-called objective material.
As the credits roll, Samir's voice-over returns once more to declare the hope that film, considering its power in forming the way we perceive the world, will soon reflect the melding of the various ethnic groups as it once did in the Egyptian comedy Fatma, Marika wa Rachel. "By incorporating these documents in the film, I'm trying to show that there were once commonalities." In the end, film not only shows us how we imagine ourselves and how we imagine others, but it helps us re-imagine this relationship. Contradicting the imperative in the title, Forget Baghdad is ultimately a film about remembering what has been forgotten.