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Hanging Gardens: A Cinematic Journey Revives Iraq

From Baghdad to Mosul, a new generation of filmmakers, actors, and screenwriters is reviving an industry plagued by dictatorship and wars. Ahmed Yassin Al-Daradji sits on the banks of the Diyala, a tributary of the Tigris. The filmmaker watches young Hussein as night slowly falls over the Mesopotamian landscape that surrounds them. Not a sound is heard since the assistant director, Wareth Kwaish, asked the entire crew to take a break until filming resumes.

Only the persistent croaking of frogs and the rhythmic pulsation of river insects can be perceived. In the distance, a buffalo bids farewell to the dying day with its solitary lament, before the sun disappears beyond the Tigres' horizon.

Ahmed Yassin waits for nightfall to give the opening clap for one of the major scenes of Hanging Gardens. His new film, produced by Ishtar Iraq Production and funded by the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in Beirut, showcases 15 teenage extras, who are being paid daily. They sit around the fire, savoring the poetry and beauty of the night descending upon the river.

The lead actor, Hussein Mohammed Khalil, portrays a 12-year-old boy. He still has plenty to do under the director's supervision. However, he has grown fond of it: "This morning, they cut my hair, and now Ahmed is explaining how to express my sadness and surprise," he confides with a gentle smile.

Symbolism of the Inflatable Doll This production is full of surprises, starting with its selection at the Venice Film Festival last August in the Final Cut section, a program aimed at assisting films in the post-production stage. The loss of innocence, the story of Iraq's occupation and wars, as well as the current instability and the demand by young people for full civil rights (expressed in the context of the protest movement that emerged in late 2019), are interwoven in the film around a peculiar object of desire: an inflatable doll.

Ahmed Yassin passionately explains it all to us, after shooting a scene at a landfill near Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad. "The young orphan, Assad, while spending the day at the landfill, finds an inflatable doll in a garbage bag from an American base. In the doll's lifelike and expressive face, he sees the image of a possible mother, the one he never knew. He names her Salwa, carries her away, hides her, and protects her." This strange presence then disrupts the local community and Assad's own heart.

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