DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
FORGET BAGHDAD (director/writer/producer/editor: Samir; cinematographers: Nurith Aviv/Philippe Bellaiche; editor: Nina Schneider; music: Rabih Abou-Khalil; cast: Shimon Ballas, Moshe Houri, Sami Michael, Samir Naqqash, Ella Shohat; Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Karin Koch/Gerd Haag; Arab Film Distribution; 2002-Switzerland, in Arabic, Hebrew and English-with English subtitles)

 
"A fascinating documentary about identity, assimilation, and the affects of migration."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A fascinating documentary about identity, assimilation, and the affects of migration. The director and writer is a gentle and sincere Shiite Muslim named Samir ("Babylon 2"), the son of an Iraqi Communist who immigrated at a young age to Switzerland. Samir travels to Israel to interview in Arabic four strangers, Iraqi male Jewish Communist members, who freely tell about their experiences: Shimon Ballas (professor of Arabic in Tel Aviv, involved in the pro-Palestinian peace and civil rights movement), Moshe Houri (a wealthy juice kiosk owner and building contractor in a Tel Aviv suburb called Ramat Gan, where mostly Iraqi immigrants live), Sami Michael (one of Israel’s most famous best-selling authors, who renounced communism), Samir Naqqash (the only one of the four who still writes in Arabic. His works of literature have brought him critical acclaim but publishers these days are no longer interested in him ­ neither in the Arab territories nor those in Israel). 

Samir gets them to talk about being a Jew in Iraq as opposed to being an Arabic Jew in Israel. There were 120,000 Iraqi Jews out of 140,000 in the country who fled to Israel after it became an independent country in 1948. Samir draws from these four what it is like to be an Arabic Jewish citizen, Sephardim or Mizrahim (Oriental Jew), in Israel, a country where the majority of the citizens are from the predominant Ashkenazi (European-descended), as he relates their stories to his own disconnect with his culture and language. Samir also pumps them to learn about their impressions of living in Iraq and joining with the Communist instead of the Zionist movement. To counter the male interviewees he travels to New York City to chat with Ella Shohat, an intellectual college professor and writer of a recent book on Israeli films depicting Arab Jews. Born in Israel of Iraqi parents, she generously reflects on her alienation growing up in Israel and suffering from racism. There's even a clip shown of her on a popular Israeli talk show arguing with the arrogant host over whether Arabic Jews experience prejudice. In the interview from her Brooklyn residence, in an Arab neighborhood that gives her comfort, she mentions that in Israel her family was considered outsiders because they were Arabs and ironically while in Iraq they were outsiders because they were Jews. 

The four elderly Jewish men never met Samir's father even though they were all members of the Iraqi Communist Party in the 1940s. Yet what is made absolutely clear is that Arab and Jew shared membership together in the party and gave voice to the party's international aims. That former relationship gives promise that maybe there's a way of bridging that tremendous gap that has opened up since Nazi propaganda during WW11 fueled violent acts of hatred against the Jewish community in a policy called Farhoud and later Israel's existence made the same Semitic people into intransigent enemies. What caught my undivided attention about Forget Baghdad was the always peaceful exchange between Arab and Jew, as Samir just wanted to listen and understand and get to know a people he never knew but only through the loving stories his father passed down to him. 

I can't help but think that fighting always seems to get more bitter when either side is demonized and people stop listening to each other. It seems the world hasn't learned much from the Vietnam War where President Johnson and Ho Chi Minh never communicated, just as the current President Bush never communicated with Saddam Hussein to find a way of preventing war and the current Palestine leaders and the Israeli leaders are hopelessly at loggerheads. What Samir's documentary infers is that so-called enemies better learn how to communicate and should start by listening and learning more about one another, otherwise history will always repeat with more brutalities and more calls for greater separation.

Samir cashes in on his emotional messages of people who are made to feel inferior and therefore will not respond well to trying to fit into their new countries. He intercuts the interviews with popular films watched by both Arabs and Arab Jews, as he employs a split screen to relate the two competing images of reality while continuing the interview. These films tried to portray the way society viewed Arabs, which Shohat states were mostly fun films meant to be harmlessly enjoyed and not taken seriously but nevertheless did some damage because they reinforced stereotypes. In the 1940s, in Iraq, the fluff Egyptian musical Fatma was the rage, while the Israeli 1964 comedy Sallah Shabati was an example of a type of genre called "Boureka." That silly film depicted an inferior Arabic Jewish family arriving in Israel and the slacker patriarch getting by with charm. Incidentally I saw that film on video and found it slightly amusing, as it obviously didn't rub me in the same irritable way it did the film scholar (though she also found it enjoyable but was still embarrassed by its crude characterization of Oriental Jews).

Forget Baghdad is a rare film that doesn't forget that the conflicts of the past have cutoff a continuation of relationships and caused a severe identity crisis among all the interviewed subjects. They all feel removed from their former homeland and to some extent feel uneasy in their new homeland. But that doesn't mean that there can't be a return to sanity and a peaceful accord reached and a real peace established that can find its way over all boundaries and bring people together in a refreshingly new way, as difficult as that road might be to attain. It is only through such gestures of good will as depicted here, no matter how small it seems, that there remains any hope for the future in the Middle East, and for that reason I applaud this film for providing some kind of response for dealing with this so far scary "new world order." 

REVIEWED ON 11/14/2003     GRADE: A

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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