Directed by: Ahmed Yassin Al Ddaradji
Palestine, UK, Egypt, Saudi Arabia
RAD TIMES review by Komal Biradar
Hanging Gardens by Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji is an entertaining and, at times, disconcerting film about two brothers at the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder in war-torn Baghdad.
The film begins with visuals of the “Hanging Gardens,” the vast dump site on the outskirts of Baghdad scattered with rubble and heaps of garbage. This dumping ground is where 28-year-old Taha and his younger brother As’ad rummage through piles of discarded junk to find sellable and recyclable objects such as scrap metal and plastic sheets.
Although the image the film presents of the lives of these two brothers is rather bleak, it is clear from the off-set that to young As’ad even the tiresome task of combing through garbage is an adventure of sorts. As’ad sees his work as something enjoyable as he often seeks out US army-base waste and looks for objects that intrigue him. Among his finds are sometimes an assortment of lude magazines and images of nude women that he makes some extra money off of by selling, much to the chagrin of his older brother. Taha disproves of these actions and berates As’ad by saying that they barely survive the halal way, and that As’ad’s haram actions will send them to hell. Taha’s scolding however, falls flat to As’ad as Taha engages in some questionable behaviour himself, such as ogling at a female neighbour through a peephole in their terrace wall.
All these inappropriate behaviours however seem rather insignificant and tame compared to what follows. While rummaging through the garbage one day, As’ad finds a blonde, American sex doll, equipped with several interesting features and a bikini with the print of the American flag on it. The young boy is immediately enamoured by this doll and seems to form an affectionate bond with her. He names her Salwah, which means both comfort and salvation, stating that he cannot leave her nameless.As’ad treats Salwah as a miraculous find and regards her as athing of true beauty.
Soon, alongside his friend Amir, As’ad begins running a lucrative brother-on-wheels with Amir’s rickshaw as their place of business. They pimp out the doll to hordes of men who form long queues outside the rickshaw in anticipation of having their way with Salwah. Although they are pimping out the doll, As’ad does not regard Salwah as merely a sex toy.
The film’s tone shifts constantly through the course of the story, going from hilarious when we see the shots of long and lecherous lines of horny men to emotional and downright disheartening in scenes where Taha and As’ad fight with each other. The film is equal parts a coming-of-age tale and a commentary on the life of poverty-stricken people in Iraq, all while managing to be witty and entertaining. The film keeps you engaged with humour and drama, and despite the nature of dark and taboo subject matter, it never gets too difficult to keep watching. Hanging Gardens is a unique, novel story with well fleshed-out characters.
The film is layered and seems to hide a lot of its messages within the story. One must pay close attention to the details to absorb what the film is trying to convey. Al Daradji is not afraid of exploring controversial and taboo topics in this film, the primary themes being sexuality, longing, and the desire for material wealth and possession. Hanging Gardens serves as a commentary on greed and desire. The film explores how young boys learn about exploitation and commercialization. The plot draws you on as you watch as As’ad and Amir exploit Salwah and use her for their personal gain, the same way that she was exploited and discarded by the very people responsible for As’ad and Amir’s impoverishment.
The film has a certain intimacy to it, and as the story progresses we watch as this young 12-year-old child is stripped of his innocence and child-like wonder.
The entire cast provided an exemplary performance, truly embodying their characters. Muhammad Jalil as the sensitive and naive As’ad is so believable in his role and his eyes manage to convey a certain maturity that comes with seeing the kind of struggles that come with war and poverty. AkramMazen as Amir is a showstopper with his “tough-guy” persona.
As the film reaches its conclusion, we see As’ad realise that it is finally time to give up Salwah. The image of the Hanging Gardens on fire as As’ad walks away serves as a reminder of how fleeting the illusion of freedom is for those like As’ad. Hanging Gardens is a poignant and affecting tale of a child losing his innocence as he learns of nature of exploitation and greed. It is a raw portrayal of life in war-torn Iraq and how the people try to alleviate the pain and struggles they are forced to endure.
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