I had the privilege to see “Ahlaam Dreams” during the Portland International Film Festival. It was touching, moving, and harrowing. I left the theater with a deeper understanding of the sorrowful situation that the people of Iraq find themselves in. “Ahlaam Dreams,” shortened on some advertisements to “Ahlaam” is a gut-wrenching portrait of life in Iraq, both pre and post Saddam.
The film centrally involves several characters that are college age and what happens from 1998 to just after the U.S. invasion in 2003. The film was actually filmed in Iraq after the U.S. had taken Baghdad and occupied it for about a year. It darts back and forth, covering what happened to the characters while bringing the stories to a conclusion. I would very much recommend the film to anyone seeking a greater understanding of the situation in Iraq.
The three major characters are Ali, a soldier that is caught between a friend and the oppressive Saddam regime and ends up shell-shocked in a Baghdad mental hospital. Dr. Mehdi is a young doctor assigned to the same mental hospital. He is very accomplished, but lives in the shadow of his father’s political past. He is an idealist in a country sorely needing for ideas. He strives to do what he can for the patients amidst the drama of war. Ahlaam is a woman who just got out of college and was about to marry the man of her dreams. On her wedding day, he is kidnapped and she never sees him again. The resulting anguish causes her to end up in the mental hospital too. The film shows us the tragedy of all of their lives as they search for hope in hopelessness.
When the American bombing of Baghdad destroys part of the hospital and throws the occupants out on the street, Dr. Mehdi bravely sets about finding them and trying to return them to the relative safety of the facility.
Director Muhamed Al-Daradji had to film contending with blackouts, shootings and bombings on a daily basis. When the power went out, he filmed using car headlights, flashlights, and candles for illumination. He sometimes carried an AK-47 loaded with blanks to use as a deterrent.
The film will force you to pay attention. You will feel the pain of an entire country. And you might ask yourself some questions. Is what America doing in Iraq the right thing? You will see in the movie that life was bad under Saddam. There was no sense of certainty about anything. A person could disappear, like Ahlaam’s husband to be did. Still, children played, families had gatherings, people went about their lives. In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion, there is still all the danger, and less life. As I emerged from the theater onto the safe streets of Portland, Oregon, I couldn’t help but look around and ask myself “at what price?” At what price is our security, our economy, our oil. Regardless of how a person feels about why we are in Iraq now, it is impossible to deny that the country would have a very different past, present, and future if not for oil. I am afraid that some might see the film and feel less for the Iraqi people. That they will rationalize the suffering away, with the comments one hears like “they do it to themselves” or even “their faith is in the wrong God.” I hope that doesn’t happen, that everyone who sees it feels an empathy for families forced to live in their own slice of hell. And perhaps they will join me-even though I know it doesn’t mean much-in saying to the Iraqi people “I’m sorry.”