Ffor 235 days, Alaa Namiq harboured the Iraqi president in his rural shackle after American forces illegally invaded the country. For him, the man hiding in purposely-built hole in the ground, underneath a cemented flower bed, was not a dictator, someone who used chemical weapons on Kurds, and routinely tortured and killed his enemies. He only knew Saddam from the one state-sponsored television channel that was available on his television, where he was presented as a loving leader and national hero. So Alaa harboured, nurtured and protected Saddam like a family member. He put all of his heart and soul into ensuring that the world’s most wanted man remained healthy and sane. He became his doctor, his barber, his physician and his bodyguard. Even more significantly, he became his son and his best friend.
Roughly a third of the film consists of a very extensive interview with the now middle-aged “host”. Halkawt Mustafa allows his interviewee to romanticise and extol Saddam Hussein. Alaa repeatedly calls him “president” and describes the most intimate events that they shared (such as rubbing each other’s back in the bath) with innermost affection. The most tense and dangerous moment comes when Alaa drives past an American checkpoint with Saddam on the passenger seat, wearing shades and feigning illness. “This is my sick father’, the young farmer explains to the soldiers. Alaa cries on at least a couple of occasions: when he has to break the news of the death of his two sons to Saddam, and the moment when they finally located the hole. Even now, two decades later, his loyalty has not shifted. His heart remains loyal to the man who became the most peculiar guest anyone could have ever conceive. It is remarkable that a Kurdish filmmaker – the Kurds were the people who suffered the most under Saddam’s reign of terror – allowed such frankness to prevail.
Another third of the movie consist of war and television footage, such as George Bush giving Saddam an ultimatum to hand him self in, American envoy Paul Bremer offering a bounty of U$25 million to anyone with information leading to Saddam, and the illegal occupiers jubilant about the capture of the president. We also see the disturbing images of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison, where Alaa was detained for seven months. American invaders infamously subjected Iraqis to horrific physical and psychological torture and degradation, taking smiling selfies in the process. It is barely surprising that Alaa’s allegiance has not shifted. The remaining third of the images in the movie consists of reenactments of the interactions between Alaa and Saddam, interspersed throughout. Some of these scenes are a little stilted and contrived, not on a par with the emotional depth of the story. This is the biggest shortcoming of an otherwise impressive piece of filmmaking.
Saddam Hussein has a slimmer of hope as dissatisfied locals take to the streets, resistance forces gather pace, and resistance leader Mohammed Ibrahim repeatedly visited Saddam. Hopes are dashed when someone snitches on the president (presumably Ibrahim). Hiding Saddam Hussein, however, is not a celebration of Saddam Hussein, a film nostalgic of the pre-occupation, dictatorship years. This is a movie about the loyalty and fraternity, and how two very different people can develop a very strong and genuine bond. Alaa was never persuaded by the multimillionaire reward, or daunted by the threat of 150,000 American soldiers marauding the nation in search of the old man hiding in the hole that he dig with his own hands. He was a simple peasant who followed his heart and his instinct. And Saddam Hussein was just a sad and vulnerable old man seeking food and shelter.
Alaa’s highly dangerous and secretive mission has parallels to the the process of filmmaker. Halkawt Mustafa had to keep his project secret for 14 years, he said in an interview. That was in the interest of Alaa’s safety (Ibrahim attempted to murder him at least twice since). “I wrote a script about drinking water disappearing from the area. They thought I was shooting a movie about climate change.”, he explains.
Hiding Saddam Hussein shows at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. The film premiered earlier this year at IDFA.