Between a mountain and a hard place - "Marooned in Iraq" Review

By David Lipfert

A father and two sons set off on a search for their long-lost wife and mother that ends inconclusively but illustrates the plight of Iraq's Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war, in "Marooned in Iraq" from the director of "A Time for Drunken Horses."

There couldn't be a more timely title than "Marooned in Iraq." But this film is not about the here and now in Iraq. The story takes place in the late 1980s in the Kurdish area straddling Iran and Iraq. With two wild and crazy sons Barat and Audeh in tow, the jilted Mirza sets out to find his runaway wife.

He's taken long enough. To be exact it's been a total of 23 years since his wife Hanareh left Mirza for his best friend Seyyed. Now he has heard through the grapevine that she is in trouble. So off he goes to track her down in Iraq and keep alive his glimmer of hope they can reunite.

Fellow Kurds offer clues as to her whereabouts, but the only thing Mirza seems to encounter on this trek are colorful characters and dangerous situations. Wacky marriage broker Mollah Ghader and a war-profiteer doctor ("Saddam brings me money") are but two of the unforgettable denizens of the barren mountains.

Thieves slip away with less ceremony. Barat's beloved motorcycle falls victim to the rule of force in place in these parts. Soon he spots it already in sections on its way to parts unknown via mule caravan in a scene out of Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi's other feature seen here, "A Time for Drunken Horses."

Surprisingly, tenderness isn't in short supply either. At the end of his apparently fruitless quest, Mirza (Shahab Ebrahimi) encounters a modest woman, who consigns the infant daughter of Hanareh and Seyyed. In this case Ghobadi's use of non-actors offers the audience latitude to project the range of intense feelings the two adults exchange. The carefully veiled woman is probably Hanareh (Iran Ghobadi) herself, embarrassed at her disfigurement and virtual loss of voice after a presumed chemical-weapons attack.

Son Audeh's libido has prompted numerous marriages, and this trip provides him with yet another, a young woman among a group of prematurely aged men. The couple's union offers an unexpected ray of hope to the group, and by implication to all the Kurdish mountain peoples.

As background to the tale, Mirza headed a group of musicians that included his two sons as well as Hanareh and Seyyed. When the latter fled, it was curtains for the group, but Mirza's musical talents have not dissipated. During this adventure, he and his sons hold a command performance for a local thug's wedding. (In reality, the three are professional musicians though definitely not professional actors.) Music of one sort or another punctuates the film and helps to flesh out the scenes.

The quest is the subject here, so no matter that the plot line unfolds without the normal continuity. Cinematography doesn't help much either, because it has been used to more to differentiate scenes than to move the story along. The time frame for the journey was vague except for the abrupt change from dusty conditions to thick snow cover.

One scene is a treasure. With Iraqi jets soaring overhead on bombing sorties, a devoted teacher (Saied Mohammadi) explains to a group of school kids, probably orphans, what is happening. The jet noises have already been heard at the beginning of the film (echoes of Samira Makhmalbaf's "Blackboards"), but actually seeing the planes drives home the imminent danger everyone lives in. Cutting from the kids as they set loose a squadron of white paper airplanes over the valley to their squinting at the sky evokes their innocence in pathetic circumstances.

The defining event for the Iraqi Kurds is the chemical-weapons attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988. Although this is the most talked-about of Saddam's use of CWs, let's not forget that he had been using his portfolio of nasties against Iran since 1982 while at war with his neighbor. Saddam's motivation was to warn Iraqi Kurds against collaborating with the enemy - as usual by attacking unarmed civilians. Ghobadi thus equates the experience of the Kurds in this film with the larger-scale Iranian one.

Ethnic Kurds are distributed over four modern countries: Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. Having encountered them in three out of those four states, this reviewer can attest to their intra-group solidarity that stands apart from national culture. But what may be missing is the vision of a Kurdish nation that would span these separate countries.

Ghobadi addresses this issue obliquely. The cross-border movement shown in the film would superficially support the notion of a grand Kurdistan. But Ghobadi shows the children with standard-issue Iranian schoolbooks and the Kurdish language they speak is peppered with Persian words. The conclusion is that these people's educational if not cultural development is tied to their country of residence.

Originally Published April 25, 2003

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