The River’s Shadow: Iraqi psychothriller's stinging critique of fishbowl society
The newly released tetchy Iraqi psychothriller — The River’s Shadow — by Ahmed Abd, transports us into an enchanted, multi-storied Baghdadi home; bloated with secrets, haunted with spirits, and inhabited by a love-starved family.
They live in the shadows of their father-in-chief; a feudal-minded overlord whose chequered past as a military general is interrogated without warning one day.
"Despite its threadbare dialogue, the taboo-busting production examines a full inventory of themes that speak truth to Iraqis and their hidden trauma"
His stony exterior starts fading after the arrival of a guest irrevocably changes the family’s fate. The anonymous woman appears at their porch unexpectedly one hazy afternoon. Although they seem to be unacquainted, a palpable connection is felt in their interactions.
The eldest son raises the red flag; “you don't know what she’s capable of”, he says, urging his mother to banish the intruder. The decision is not hers to make. With approval from the father, the woman who they are told is fleeing violence, takes up a permanent seat at the family table.
Her story is murky and her prying eyes prompt the head of the household to question family members one by one; “who knows her”; nobody knows.
The widely held mantra ‘What happens at home, stays at home’ is put to the test by her arrival. During her unending stay, she develops a budding friendship with her female counterpart, Souad, the former General’s wife, and inspires her to abandon her servient self.
For years she tolerated her husband’s iron-fisted rule, his brandishing of rifles and temperamentality. But their atrophied marriage and Souad’s feelings towards him for his past sins have extinguished her tolerance.
Despite its threadbare dialogue, the taboo-busting production examines a full inventory of themes that speak truth to Iraqis and their hidden trauma. Themes of infidelity, motherhood, shadow work, drug addiction, vengeance, mourning, militarism, forbearance, sacrifice, murder, and unrequited love.
Most potent is the theme of violence; not only political violence but the violence incubated inside the family home; violence which perforates outwards from the centre and from the top down — a discreet symbol of Iraq’s dismembered society.
The trigger-happy father, the meth-addict son, the golden child, the expendable mother, a daughter seen but not heard, and a woman hunted by her brothers for blood, are relatable characters that inhabit the country today.
The intense paranoia giving the film its razor edge is blunted by its delicate cinematography. It allows one to appreciate the nondescript beauty of the mundane in a country where the scars of war are visible above all else.
A misty aquamarine hue sets the tone of the allegorical thriller. Writer and director, Ahmed Abd, also toys with “The Gift of the Tigris” as a theme, due to its centrality in Iraqi life as far back as ancient Mesopotamia.
The Tigris’ gift to Iraq was an enviable ecosystem but the Tigris has become synonymous with war and bloodletting; a burial ground for the dead.
Those familiar with the anatomy of rivers may be confused by the film’s title. Humans cast shadows; surely rivers don’t. But perhaps the title provides subtle hints and clues.
Just like the haunted house, the river also bears secrets of the past; the father’s past to be specific. The omnipresence of dead fish throughout the film is an extension of this theme. Fish occupy an important place in Mesopotamian mythology, and even thousands of years later they continue to represent good omens in times of uncertainty.
"Even the almighty hegemon is afraid of those he tries to control, and beneath it all his confidence is shattered"
We catch a glimpse of this in the scene where Souad reads the coffee grounds of her guests’ finjan (tasseography).
“I see a big fish; a fish of subsistence” — Simchet Rizq — she tells her. In these intimate moments, the two women unbutton their emotions and wash away their pain. Though abstract, the film’s aquatic theme is far from inane. For Abd, it serves as a symbol of the Iraqi mind; “the unconscious mind”, he told The New Arab in a telephone interview from Baghdad. The family home, in his eyes, represents “a giant fish bowl from which there is no escape”.
As a British-Iraqi raised watching western thrillers I certainly saw — perhaps to the disagreement of others — shades of What Lies Beneath and House on a Haunted Hill. Abd reworks Hollywood's haunted house formula but from a characteristically Iraqi perspective.
“I lived with these former military officers, observed their interactions, how they treated their family, even their tone of voice”. He recalls the comedic quality of their persecuted mindset, particularly in the context of Iraq’s darkest hour; the sectarian conflict of 2006/7.
“They had their own routine. Every morning they would inspect their cars, in paranoia, twitching, searching high and low for sticky bombs, convinced that someone was out for their blood”.
The film’s main protagonist is an imitation of those figures who, as Abd explained, consider themselves members of Iraq’s top military brass; officers that served under Hassan Al-Bakr, Saddam Hussein’s predecessor. Still, as Abd puts it, “Even the almighty hegemon is afraid of those he tries to control, and beneath it all his confidence is shattered."
How then can a family on the edge of sanity, whose present is clouded by the past, escape? Can and will they hold onto dear life? Or will they resign themselves to defeat? As I learned, these are the questions which viewers should not expect to be answered in the film.
Nazli Tarzi is an independent journalist, whose writings and films focus on Iraq's ancient history and contemporary political scene.
Follow her on Twitter: @NazliTarzi