Baghdad Central: New UK noir crime-thriller captures candid portrait of occupied Iraq

Baghdad Central: New UK noir crime-thriller captures candid portrait of occupied Iraq
Set against the backdrop of Iraq's Anglo-American invasion 17 years ago, Baghdad Central peers into the lives of Baghdadis as their world frays and unravels.
5 min read
24 January, 2020
The series is due to air on Channel 4 soon [Channel 4]
British Channel 4's hotly anticipated noir-styled television thriller Baghdad Central pulls the curtains back on ordinary people whose homeland has become irreversibly associated with foreign-waged wars.

Set against the backdrop of Iraq's Anglo-American invasion 17 years ago, the six-part series peers into the lives of Baghdadis as their world frays and unravels.

The production's kaleidoscopic cast of largely Middle Eastern origin are central to the re-centring of Iraqi voices within a production that treads sensitively in order to shatter the matryoshka doll of stereotypes that series before it have reduced the population to.

Taking inspiration from a novel sharing the same title by Elliot Colla, the series revolves around an unlikely encounter rendered possible by war, between two men.

Muhsin al Khafaji (Waleed Zuaiter) is an ex-police officer under the Baath Government and father of two girls, and Frank Temple (Bertie Carvel) is a former metropolitan police officer. The two are brought into a sudden encounter after Temple secures Khafaji's release from Abu Ghraib – landed there under a case of mistaken identity.

A deal is struck between the men, one ostentatiously confident of his country's mandate as an occupational power to rebuild the police service America dismantled, and the other cautiously weighing up the moral burden against the benefit of the offer to rebuild his country's Police Service.

But ulterior motives are at play. Khafaji hopes that not turning down the deal will lead to his daughter Sawsan (Leem Lubany) who was kidnapped just weeks into Baghdad's occupation, and his youngest daughter Mouj (July Namir) who is growing sicker by the day.

Screenwriter Stephen Butchard, better known for scripting House of Saddam, created the backbone of the story, executive producer Kate Harwood said during Baghdad Central's premier screening at London's British Film Institute (BFI).

In many ways, Butchard had to go beyond the original story, adapting original characters and adding new ones.

Waleed Zuaiter, July Namir and Bertie Carvel attend Channel 4's Baghdad Central photocall at BFI Southbank on January 16 [Getty]

Smatterings of Iraqi-Arabic add a personal touch that allows viewers to immerse themselves in a context rarely relegated to TV.

From the thoroughfares of Baghdad to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the specs of detail that form the aesthetic backdrop disguise the actual location, Morocco, where the noir-thriller was filmed.

In conversation at the BFI, director Alice Troughton and executive producer Kate Harwood praised the collaborative nature of the project and the difference it makes to have had Baghdad-born Arij Al Soltan, associate producer, at its heart.

Many of the scenes in the first 60 hours of the series – from Sawsan's birthday party to the hammering of copperware at Baghdad's Safafeer Market – are ascribable to lived moments in Soltan's family history. The Iraqi-British filmmaker was only a young girl at the time her native Iraq was invaded.

"I made my footage available to every person on the production, fascinating, come to think of it, to look back on a Baghdad that was still beautiful and orderly," Arij told The New Arab.

"It was a time when things were also beginning to change, female students escorted to university and back, the emergence of minivans (kias) and the first mobile phones," she said.

How women navigated the choppy waters of those times occupies a place of centrality across the detective noir-thriller. The danger women find themselves in, caught in the crossfires of war, does not make for easy viewing but what viewers carry away is a sense of the power women in that society held.

In Sawsan's case, commitment to her vision of a secular Iraq not only empowered her to join occupational forces as a translator, it culminated in her disappearance which her father Khafaji uncovers is connected to the murder of an American.

"What freedom comes next" as Toughton underlined, is a question audiences will be forced to consider as they learn more about the eclectic cast of Iraqis whose perspective the story is told from.

Soltan's lived experience in those years, led her to assume, at times, an educational role as associate producer. "I spoke to people about the complexity of Iraqi society, without painting a rosy portrait" and to prevent the narrative from sliding into "ready-made Western concepts from jihad, honour, sharia to Sunni, Shia and so on," she told The New Arab.

"This was a challenge at times as some ideas were cemented in people's minds through the media."

Baghdad Central removes the ingredients applied to the Iraq story as told by the mainstream, as a people oppressed awaiting the promise of democracy to bear its foreign fruits.

In fact, it rehabilitates the Iraq story and reveals a people with integrity. As July Namir pointed out, resilience is omnipresent in the lives of the characters, "it's subconscious, they just get on with it, they have to". This widely resonates among members of cast of Palestinian origin that feature in the series, having lived parallel experiences of occupation.

In many ways the noir-thriller that promises to be binge-worthy, strips back official and mainstreamed discourses to reveal a portrait of a wounded society within a realistic frame of representation, darkly humorous but poetically melancholic as Khafaji best captures.

Nazli Tarzi is a freelance British-Iraqi journalist, specialising in Middle East politics, with a particular interest in Iraqi affairs

Follow her on Twitter: @NazliTarzi