Jagged Hope in the Ruins: In My Mother’s Arms
14.10.2011 - "I'm too young for
all this pain / I'm too young for all this agony." This is the
refrain sung by one of the troubled young subjects of In My Mother's Arms, a documentary from
Atia and Mohamed Jabarah Al Daradji about the plight of a group of
orphans in Baghdad. Infused with raw emotion, crafted with a
consciously rough-hewn but bold style, In My Mother's Arms
is a harrowing report from the aftermath of a nightmarish
In My Mother's Arms screens in ADFF's Documentary Feature Competition this year. It's
a homecoming of sorts for this film after its world premiere at the
Toronto International Film Festival last month, as it was supported
by a grant from ADFF's SANAD fund. (An incomplete work-in-progress
version was presented at last year's Festival.) The Al Daradji
brothers - who hail from Baghdad themselves, by way of the UK and
the Netherlands - previously made Son of Babylon, a
narrative set in post-war Iraq that premiered at the Festival in
2009 before winning a number of international awards.
In My Mother's Arms focuses on the particular in order
to tell about the general. Here the Al Daradji brothers chronicle
the struggle of one man, Husham, to keep his private orphanage
running in Al Sadr, Baghdad's poorest neighborhood.
Husham looks after 32 boys who have lost their families in the
war. He's been operating out of a rented house for six years
because he saw the need to rescue the kids from the miserable
state-run orphanages - places he calls prisons, where the kids are
fed stale bread. It's one of the endless list of shortcomings of a
corrupt government and a devastated economy.
Husham does what he can, but his obstacles are incredible. He
isn't supported by the government at all; he has to raise every
penny himself. He can't afford the rent, so he goes on humbling
fundraising rounds, asking for cash from local shopkeepers or
whoever can donate. In this place, people can't offer much help.
Power outages are routine. Battles between insurgents and US forces
still take place in the streets.
Husham is also the boys' main caregiver. He can't afford to hire
help; the few staff he has are volunteers. So he's an exhausted
parent of 32. He has to scold them to clean up, to dress themselves
properly, to be on time for school. Like any anxious parent, he
isn't sure how to cope with the moody teenagers in the bunch.
The boys have faced appalling destruction and death. Some of
them show it, including vacant-eyed little Saif, who chants about
pain and agony. A psychologist Husham sees for advice tells him,
"Your best isn't enough now if they're still suffering." But
despite it all they're a spirited bunch, and filled with talent.
Several are on a national youth diving team. They play music
regularly, sing and dance, put on a play.
In My Mother's Arms is a stylish film that sees the Al
Daradjis organically applying narrative techniques to shape the
story. There is no voice-over, no talking-head commentary. At times
a handheld camera follows Husham at a striking angle from behind,
creating the impression of a vérité-style drama. The staccato
rhythm of the editing builds suspense. Difficult moments in which
the camera is knocked around or addressed angrily have been left
The sense we're watching a story unfold is eerie, and the
emotions it stirs are complex. Often documentaries report on
problems so monumental they seem impossible to solve, and leave the
viewer overcome with dread. The surprising thing about In My
Mother's Arms is that, despite the severity of the political
and social void it depicts, it's filled with a kind of jagged hope.
Perhaps it's a tribute to a remarkable man; perhaps children are
inclined to optimism no matter how bad things get.
In My Mother's Arms screens at Marina
Mall's VOX Cinemas on Saturday, October 15 at 6:45pm and Monday,
October 17 at 2:00pm.