Hanging Gardens: An endearing tale of Iraqi friendship

Hanging Gardens
4 min read
21 October, 2022

Labelled as “the first Iraqi film in the official selection of Venice,” Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji’s Hanging Gardens is an endearing tale which bodes well for the future of the country’s cinematography.

The picture was co-produced with Palestine, Egypt, the UK and Saudi Arabia, and it was showcased in the Orizzonti section of this year’s Mostra d’Arte Cinematografica (31 August-10 September).

A Berlinale Talents and London Film School alumnus, Al Daradji’s graduation film Children of God (2013) won the FIPRESCI Award for Best Arab Short at the Dubai Film Festival, whilst his second short, titled Stray (2016), was world-premiered at the London Short Film Festival and later toured internationally.

"Al Daradji’s script, penned with Margaret Glover, boasts a varied, dynamic group of characters, who adhere to different value systems and are torn between their repressed desire for freedom...[and] the fear of people’s judgement"

Hanging Gardens takes place in 2021. It follows two orphaned brothers, namely 12-year-old As’ad (portrayed by talented newcomer Hussain Muhammad Jalil) and 28-year-old Taha (Wissam Diyaa), who barely scrape a living as rubbish pickers in Baghdad’s ‘Hanging Gardens,’ the local nickname for the nearby smouldering dumps.

The first turning point takes place when As’ad discovers, among waste, an American sex doll. When the boy brings the taboo item home and presents her as a thing of beauty, Taha assaults him for ruining their reputation. Meanwhile, however, we find out that As’ad is indebted to his friend, called Amir (Akram Mazen Ali).

The boy offers Amir to exploit his ‘miraculous’ discovery. Next, they realise that the doll can speak – or, at least, play some voice recordings over and over again. Thus, the pair decide to pre-record some ‘dirty’ lines and set the doll to work. Predictably, their business proves highly profitable and gains great popularity among teens and the local patriarch’s enforcers.

Al Daradji’s script, penned with Margaret Glover (David Rocksavage's Shadows in the Sun), boasts a varied, dynamic group of characters, who adhere to different value systems and are torn between their repressed desire for freedom (in particular, sexual freedom), the fear of people’s judgement and the limitations imposed by the local religious authority.

Despite some pacing issues – noticeable in particular during the first half of the picture, and until As’ad and Amir decide to team up – the plot remains engaging and entertaining throughout. The pair’s relationship is endearing and it’s interesting to see how it gradually develops from a sort of rivalry into a real friendship.

Moreover, the love doll becomes a central character, as we see how As’ad takes care of her. In a world filled with solitude and hopelessness, the boy’s ‘meaningless’ acts of affection towards the doll – for example, we see him talking to her, bathing her and dressing her up with a star-spangled bikini – may instil in the viewer a genuine feeling of compassion and understanding.

With his interpretation, young Wissma Diyaa delivers the credible portrait of a child who is still innocent and free-spirited, but who is also forced to grow up quickly through the hardship he experiences every day and the threats posed by the adults around him.

The character played by Mazen Ali is slightly older, but he shows the same dichotomic nature: too mature for a child his age, but too childish to be considered a man.

The cinematography, courtesy of DoP Duraid Munajim (And Still I Sing, This Is Not a Movie), does a fair job at framing As’ad and Amir moving around the landfill, the desert and Baghdad’s few dusty corners by often getting close and very intimate, and occasionally depicting the pair from a greater distance, thus enhancing their condition of abandoned children.

Live Story

Some influences of Neorealist cinema may be plain to see on screen, both visually and narratively. Among these are the extensive use of natural lighting and real locations, the documentary-like camera work, the choice of casting non-professional actors for the leading roles and the character of As’ad, who loosely echoes that of Bruno Ricci in Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (1948).

Despite the term ‘Neorealist influences’ having been widely abused while talking about both fiction and non-fiction cinema over the last seventy years, here the director picks wisely a few select sources of inspiration.

He integrates them within a brand-new story and a familiar social context, making the whole work authentic and heartfelt.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome

Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni