BEIRUT: Iraqi’s cinema production provides a fair barometer of the country’s condition. Though its filmmaking output was never as robust as that of Egypt or neighboring Iran, pre-sanctions Iraq did give birth to a nascent art house scene.
More important perhaps, cinema halls were full, even if Baghdadis weren’t necessarily watching Iraqi movies.
Baghdad has yet to reclaim its once-cherished mantle as one of the most cultured and profane cities in the region.
Since 2003, when an Anglo-U.S. military intervention toppled the Baath regime, U.S. and U.K. filmmakers have crafted much of Iraq’s cinematic image. High-profile titles like Paul Greengrass’ “Green Zone” (2010), Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2008) and Nick Broomfield’s “Battle for Haditha” (2007) spin Anglophone war stories in desert locations.
Writer-director Oday Rasheed is among the country’s handful of contemporary filmmakers to have attracted international attention with his work. “Qarantina,” Rasheed’s sophomore feature, will have its Beirut premiere at Metropolis Cinema Sofil Wednesday evening, the closing film of the Cinema Mondial screening cycle.
“Qarantina” tells a story of the post-Baath, U.S.-occupation era. Its ensemble of characters centers on a composite family comprised of Karima (Alaa Najem), a young wife, Muhannad (Sajed Ali), her son, and her stepdaughter Mariam (Rawan Abdullah). At the top of the family food chain is Saleh (Hatem Auda).
Middle-aged, overweight and unemployed, Saleh nicely embodies a combination of uselessness and menace. The most productive act he manages over the course of the film is to collect and burn a pile of rubbish. He and his family occupy a rundown wreck of what appears to be an Ottoman-era house – granted on sufferance from an anonymous figure simply called The Boss.
Saleh lords over his family as an autocrat, having Muhannad work as a shoeshine boy in lieu of schooling and demanding that Mariam and Karima wear hijab around the house.
Underlining Saleh’s uselessness is the house’s other lodger – a taciturn, unnamed, younger man (Asaad Abdul Majeed) who occupies the house’s spacious upstairs rooms. It is one of the more successful facets of Oday’s writing that this creature of violence at times appears to be motivated by a perverse sense of justice.
The camera wastes no time in demonstrating the unspoken sexual tension between Karima and the stranger, and Saleh’s suspicions. He can do no more than grumble, however, since the unnamed assassin is also an associate of The Boss, who pays Karima to tend on him. For her part, Mariam spends the film in a catatonic stupor, a state Saleh’s obviously had a hand in inducing.
There are things to enjoy in “Qarantina,” and most evident among these is the way the cinematography captures the location.
“Underexposure,” Rasheed’s 2005 debut, was a gorgeously chaotic work about young filmmakers trying to make post-Baath Iraq’s first movie. Shot by Ziad Turkey, the cinematography of that film could not have been more appropriate to the narrative.
Here the duties of DoP have been adopted by the director’s brother Osama, who prefers picturesque fixed-frame shots characteristic of classical European art-house fare.
The DoP does contrive some fine moments. An actor walks into a frame set around a clot of cobweb. A cloud of desert dust billowing through a crack in the house’s external wall is captured, then played backward – as if to convey the waves of pressure radiating from the core of the household.
On the whole, however, Rasheed’s writing isn’t equal to the cinematography, and the indecisiveness in the plot structure is its undoing.
“Qarantina” attempts to wed European art house convention with the premises of film noir – though he does tinker with the personnel somewhat, so that the hardened anti-hero is a bit more diabolical and the femme fatale a trifle more sympathetic.
It isn’t uncommon in the indie cinema of this region to combine art house elements with genre conventions. At times genre can make for powerful cinema – witness Leila Kilani’s 2011 debut feature, “On the Edge,” which also laces an art house sensibility with shards of noir.
The narrative core of “Qarantina” is a classic piece of synecdoche. As your English-major cousin will tell you, this is a species of metaphor in which “the part” (the household) stands in for “the larger whole” (“Iraq,” say, or “the Arab world”).
Working with this premise, “Qarantina” might have been a powerfully claustrophobic tale, its characters creaking in their skins like heads of cabbage simmering in the soup of Saleh’s sweaty misdeeds and the assassin’s oscillations between inchoate rage and atavistic violence.
As it is, the pot never heats up beyond lukewarm, as the writing and editing are too impatient to not reveal the household’s underlying conflicts in the first half hour.
Neither the writing – nor, it seems, the acting – is strong enough to churn the laconic tensions among these characters to the pitch of existential menace to which Rasheed aspires. The more natural velocity of Najem’s turn as Karima seems to be melodrama, though she and Rasheed do rein in the temptation of sentimentality.
So there seems something improvised about how, about 40 minutes in, the writer-director takes his anonymous killer out of this dysfunctional family setting and delivers him to the university where he’d been a student.
He returns to the tea kiosk outside the university gates where he used to buy tea with his pals – Ali, Hanna, Ziyad, Ahmad. While the anti-hero got bored with schooling and left college, evidently to take up a career in the Baath Party’s security apparatus, all four of his chums finished their university degrees. All four make cameo appearances in the second half of the film, demonstrating that they’ve all become suit-wearing success stories.
This narrative annex gives Rasheed’s anti-hero a back story – as does his decision to revisit his parents after some years absence. It also gives the plot more sociological girth than can be readily drummed up if he were to stay at home. Then there’s the added bonus of actually meeting The Boss, and learning that, in Baghdad too, wearing a suit and a university degree doesn’t mean you’re not a thug.
Oday Rasheed’s “Qarantina” screens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Wednesday evening at 8 p.m., the closing film of Cinema Mondial. See facebook.com/MetropolisCinema or call 01-204-080 for more information.