QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM THE RED SEA
Twelve-year-old As’ad (Wissam Diyaa) and his adult brother Taha barely scrape a living by picking garbage in the Hanging Gardens dumps, located in the outskirts of the Iraqi capital. The land is littered with rubble, junk and filth of all sorts, and it extends as far as your eyes can see. The buzzing of flies is incessant. The abject poverty is overpowering. The pungent malador is presumably unbearable: we should consider ourselves lucky that the seventh art has no means of conveying olfactory sensations to the audiences. The 36-year-old filmmaker, who is indeed from Baghdad, utilises the dumps as a metonym of his war-savaged nation. The scars of the protracted armed conflicted that took place between 2003 and 2011 are still everywhere to be sensed and to be seen.
It is not unusual for As’ad and Taha to encounter corpses in the towering garbage heaps. This is a sordid reminder of a recent and still palpable past when human lives were routinely discarded. Our protagonists have become sesensitised to death and duress. Well, almost entirely. They are shaken by their latest discovery: a dead baby. They quickly proceed to burn the abandoned infant, lest the ravenous dogs devour it. One day, As’ad stumbles across a far less tragic yet not less creepy find: a real-size blonde sex doll, complete with moving eyes, a functional vagina, jugs the size of two melons, and voice commands (she repeats what she’s told much like a parrot does).
As’ad becomes strangely attached to the giant toy. He refuses to dispose of her, even after his brother threatens him with eviction. “Either this aberration or both of you have to go”, asserts the shocked adult. The sex dolls embodies deviation on a sexual and also on a political level. Her caucasian features represent their oppressors, who invaded and razed their nation to the ground two decades earlier. As’ad is too young to remember the War, but his brother must have vivid memories of the conflict. As’ad chooses to sleep with the enemy, promptly moving into a disused tank bang in the middle of the landfill with the bosomy lady. And he uses her for financial gain, setting up a brothel on the back of a precarious rickshaw. He rents the voluptuous doll to a legion of horny young men seemingly deprived of real-life sexual interaction. he creates new friendship bonds but also new enemies keen to land their hands on the shapely toy and also on As’ad’s newly struck gold mine.
Hanging Gardens is a film about finding hope in the most unlikely of places. An inanimate object becomes a proxy for humans, for both affectionate and sexual purposes. The impressive photography constantly reminds us that our protagonist leads a life as primitive as it gets, often flirting with death. The aesthetics of hunger are shockingly ugly yet strangely alluring. Had this not been made by a local filmmaker and with local actors, it would have easily slipped into poverty porn. Yet this is not an exploitation movie for made Westerners hungry for exoticism, but instead a film dealing with topics relevant to Iraqi people. The Quran is often mentioned, and the limits of Muslim sexuality are repeatedly tested.
On the other hand, Hanging Gardens, lacks emotional vigour. The script often borders on the infantile, and the performances don’t always rise to the level of expectations required. As a result, the action sometimes feels vapid and cold. See Yomeddine (Abu Bakr Shawky, 2018) for a heart-wrenching comedy about a child and an adult dwelling in a garbage landfill. The Egyptian film won the prestigious François Chalais Prize in Cannes just four years ago.
Hanging Gardens is showing in the Official Competition of the 2nd Red Sea International Film Festival. The event is held between December 1st and 10th in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.