Film Review: Maysoon Pachachi’s “Our River…Our Sky” in Iraq

30 May, 2022
Maysoon Pachachi’s Our River…Our Sky fea­tures (l to r) Dari­na Al Joun­di as Sara, Ali El Kareem as Boat­man and Zainab Joda as Reema (cour­tesy pro­duc­er Talal Al-Muhanna).

 

Screen­ings of Our River…Our Sky will be hap­pen­ing on June 1 & 6 in Egypt as part of Cairo Cin­e­ma Dayspro­grammed by Zawya, and on June 29 in Ger­many with­in the rubric of “Change of per­spec­tive — Chil­dren pho­to­graph their Iraq” — an exhi­bi­tion in Berlin of GIZ (Ger­man Soci­ety for Inter­na­tion­al Coop­er­a­tion) in coop­er­a­tion with ALFILM Arab Film Fes­ti­val Berlin.

 

Nadje Al-Ali

 

To watch scenes of hor­ror and human despair unfold in real-time 2022 with the Russ­ian inva­sion of Ukraine is to get a sense of the dif­fi­cult every­day strug­gles Ukrain­ian sol­diers and civil­ians face. The glob­al media human­izes Ukraini­ans who are described as com­plex actors resist­ing the Russ­ian atroc­i­ties in cre­ative and hero­ic ways. Cur­rent cov­er­age of the war in Ukraine is eas­i­ly dis­tin­guish­able from the way the occu­pa­tion of Iraq and the sub­se­quent sec­tar­i­an war were report­ed by west­ern media and the movie indus­try in the after­math of the US-led inva­sion in 2003.

If it was crit­i­cized at all, one of the most famous Hol­ly­wood depic­tions of the war in Iraq, Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-win­ning The Hurt Lock­er (2008), was only chal­lenged by some Iraq War vet­er­ans for sup­pos­ed­ly dis­re­spect­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary. The light­weight pub­lic con­tro­ver­sy in the US revolved around the film’s alleged­ly inac­cu­rate por­tray­al of dis­obe­di­ent sol­diers going rogue. Yet beyond the US bor­ders, many dis­liked the movie for its prob­lem­at­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Iraqis who were either depict­ed as an undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed mass of spec­ta­tors or evil vil­lains. Iraqi women, while not shown to be ter­ror­ist or crim­i­nals, are rep­re­sent­ed as pas­sive wail­ing vic­tims. Ear­li­er, Nick Broomfield’s Bat­tle for Haditha (2007) visu­al­ly and the­mat­i­cal­ly engaged Iraqi civil­ians with far more empa­thy and human­i­ty, but even here they were large­ly rel­e­gat­ed to the perime­ters of plot line, action and vision. 

 

 

Lon­don-based British Iraqi film­mak­er Maysoon Pachachi’s most recent film Our River…Our Sky (2021) offers a dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Iraq war: her pow­er­ful and mov­ing cre­ative inter­ven­tion, co-writ­ten with Ira­da Al-Jubori, a Bagh­dad-based nov­el­ist and poet, puts every­day expe­ri­ences of the war at its cen­ter. In many ways, the film is an exten­sion of Pachachi’s long-stand­ing com­mit­ment to high­light expe­ri­ences of ordi­nary Iraqis, espe­cial­ly women. It is in the con­text of anti-sanc­tions and anti-war activism that we met in the 1990s, and co-found­ed an orga­ni­za­tion called Act Togeth­er: Women’s Action for Iraq as a way to high­light both the spe­cif­ic plight of Iraqi women in light of dic­ta­tor­ship, sanc­tions and war, but also to sup­port their agency and var­i­ous forms of resistance. 

Our River…Our Sky  is set in a mixed Bagh­da­di neigh­bor­hood — mixed both in terms of reli­gious denom­i­na­tions and eth­nic back­grounds. Here ordi­nary Iraqis are shown try­ing to pur­sue their every­day lives, their friend­ships, as well as roman­tic and fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships in the midst of vio­lence, chaos and the mul­ti­tudes of dan­ger linked to the sec­tar­i­an war fol­low­ing the inva­sion of Iraq. 

Indi­vid­ual sto­ries of the main char­ac­ters in the movie inter­sect dur­ing a peri­od of extreme sec­tar­i­an vio­lence, night­ly cur­fews, explo­sions and kid­nap­pings. The con­text of the film is the last week of 2006, the week between Christ­mas and Islam­ic Eid. The indi­vid­ual sto­ries are woven togeth­er to make a col­lec­tive nar­ra­tive of sur­vival, of love, hope and cre­ative resis­tance in the face of suf­fer­ing and hard­ship. As Pachachi stress­es, the women and men, and even chil­dren, por­trayed in the film, are not just vic­tims but peo­ple with agency, with ambi­tions and dreams. Con­front­ed with every­day vio­lence and trau­ma, they retain their sense of self, human­i­ty, their hope, and even an enor­mous dose of humor. 

One of the main char­ac­ters, a nov­el­ist named Sara (played by the won­der­ful Dari­na Al Joun­di), is unable to write any­more because every­thing she would write would be a lie: Sara finds it impos­si­ble to find the words to accu­rate­ly describe the hor­rors and trau­ma of the war. Instead, she com­pul­sive­ly search­es the Inter­net for the num­bers of dead Iraqis. Yet, even while obsess­ing about the dead, Sara is at the heart of her com­mu­ni­ty. Her warmth per­me­ates not only her lov­ing rela­tion­ship with her young daugh­ter Rima (played by Zainab Joda) but also all her friend­ships and inter­ac­tions with neigh­bors, food ven­dors, and even strangers. 

Whether to stay in war-torn Iraq or to leave it behind is a ques­tion asked by sev­er­al of the char­ac­ters con­front­ed with grow­ing cor­rup­tion, dif­fer­ent threats, trau­mas, dai­ly explo­sions and death tolls. There is not an easy answer or sin­gle solu­tion to this dilem­ma, but it becomes clear that every­one por­trayed is close­ly attached to their com­mu­ni­ty, their neigh­bor­hood and the peo­ple they live with and relate to. Nine-year-old Rima, the engag­ing child who per­haps rep­re­sents the film’s hope for the future, finds the idea of leav­ing Iraq unimag­in­able. Pre­vi­ous­ly known as Anoth­er Day in Bagh­dad, the film’s new title, Our River…Our Sky, express­es people’s attach­ment to the riv­er Tigris, the heart and soul of the city and a wider refusal to be dis­pos­sessed by war and violence. 

 

BaghdadIraq warMaysoon PachachiUkrainewar movies

Nadje Al-Ali is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Brown where she is Robert Family Professor of International Studies and Professor of Anthropology and Middle East Studies. Her main research interests revolve around feminist activism and gendered mobilization, mainly with reference to Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and the Kurdish political movement. Her publications include What kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq (2009, University of California Press, co-authored with Nicola Pratt); Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present (2007, Zed Books), and Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East (Cambridge University Press 2000). She is on the advisory board of kohl: a journal of body and gender research and has been involved in several feminist organizations and campaigns transnationally.