War, destroyed cities, patriarchy: these are things that come to mind when thinking about Iraq. Rarely does a western audience get an inside into individual stories from war-torn countries in the Middle East. In the very personal documentary Iraqi Odyssey, director Samir fills this gap by tracing his family’s escape to avoid political persecution. Most of his six aunts and uncles and 20 cousins now live abroad, like four million other Iraqis; their odyssey is representative of an entire people.
Samir bases his documentary on interviews with five members of his family. Amongst them there are his younger half-sister, aunt, uncle and two cousins who have settled in London, Auckland, Buffalo and Lausanne. Throughout the film, he makes extensive use of archive material, family videos and photos. He also interweaves songs and film footage from as early as the 1950s into the narrative, as well as moving titles and graphics. These make their journey more accessible and help keep the viewer from losing focus during an almost three-hour-long film.
The first part of the film focuses on Bagdad in the 1950s and 1960s, and World War I and II. One might be surprised to see a very open-minded family on-screen; parents who let their children decide whom they wish to marry and allow both their sons and daughters to attend university. Samir succeeds in showing the audience a different side of Iraq, a brighter side. The film recalls the revolutions in 1958 and 1979, Saddam Hussein’s three-decade dictatorship, and the state’s more recent history. His uncle neatly summarises the problem of living in a country like that: “It is like a Greek tragedy. You raise your kids, some of them are brilliant. They attend medical or engineering school – and what happens? A bloody war comes up. One after another.”
While the overlong documentary provides a comprehensive view on Iraq by spanning almost a century of its history, it gets at times tangled up in the different albeit impressive stories of the depicted family members. The narrative evolves rather chronologically but jumping between different people and countries may cause a bit of confusion. However, listening to the interviewees, it is impossible not to sympathise with them. They carry the documentary with their warm characters and unmatched resilience. The intriguing film thus manages to give a deep understanding of what it must be like to leave one’s country and loved ones behind, accepting homesickness and new challenges.
Iraqi Odyssey does not yet have a UK release date.
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Watch the trailer for Iraqi Odyssey here:
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Proposed quotes: “extensive, but very personal and intriguing documentary”