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Qarantina, a work of art from a traumatized country, Iraq




An Iraqi film, Qarantina, shot in Baghdad was by far the most powerful film shown at this years LA Arab Film Festival.
Considering the war torn conditions still going on in Iraq even after the withdrawal of American forces, it is a wonder that somebody has actually been able to conceive and shoot a dramatic feature film there -- in the city of Baghdad no lessThe production company was German (Basis Berlin) but the filming, the actors and everything else are Iraqi. The director Oday Rasheed (39) is a mature filmmaker who was working on short films even under the Sadam Regime and is now trying to establish something resembling a film industry in post occupation Iraq. QARANTINA (Quarantine) is his second feature and was easily the most profound film of the representative selection shown.

On the surface this is a brooding film about a traumatized family living in a dilapidated house somewhere in Baghdad that has somehow survived the destruction all around.  Salih the father seems to have no feelings for anyone and is despised by all. Meriam his attractive daughter has suffered some kind of trauma and hasn't spoken for three days. His young second wife Kerima, can't stand him and is making it with the younger man who lives upstairs --and happens to be a hitman --a professional killer (Asaad Abdul Majeed).  He is never named, but it seems that his boss, Ahmed, pays the rent for the whole abode. Meriam has a preteen younger brother, Muhanad, who loves to study but has to shine shoes on the street to bring in some cash. An air of trauma hangs over all. Every once in a while we get out onto the main streets and see life in the city through the cannon barrel view of a patrolling American tank. 

Back at the house a sister of Salih is called in to try to snap Meriam out of her trance.

The aunt's verdict -- Meriam is pregnant by Satan, the devil himself, but her efforts at exorcism are of no avail.

The killer has a cowering sidekick who takes him out in a car to do a job. The killer enters a shop. we hear a shot, and it's all over.  Business as usual. Next he carries out a one shot drive by shooting on the street. These are political targets, but he didn't follow the SOP -- wasn't supposed to do it in such a sloppy manner.  He goes to visit old cronies and we find out that he was once a university student.  His former colleagues shun him. One old friend, now a university teacher himself, would like to leave the country and accept a position in Canada but he has to take care of his elderly wheelchair bound mother. Killer solves the dilemma for him by snuffing the lady with a pillow. But now he's stepping beyond the guidelines of his calling and Ahmed, his supervisor, comes around to tell him that he cannot just commit murders randomly but has to follow the rules. "We are an organization and we have a proper way of doing things" --"What's the difference", says killer, "Dead is dead".  Ahmed gives him a patronly pat on the shoulder and departs, telling him that he is mentally ill.  As a result of this visitation Killer will himself be taken for a one way ride and snuffed by the very sidekick he treated with such callous arrogance earlier.  

Back to the family downstairs .  After a ferocious argument it is fairly clear (without being explicitly stated) that the Satan in Meriam's belly came from incestuous Daddy Salih -- the entire family rebels  and walk out on him with Auntie leading the way. Where will they go? --what will they do now ?-- anybody's guess. 
One is tempted to say that this is all an allegory of the overall situation in Iraq today --senseless cold blooded murders -- breakdown of family values -- anarchy -- hopelessness -- chaos --but life goes on under the gun.
The "quarantine" in question is more spiritual than physical, but it doesn't seem like director Rasheed is primarily interested in symbolism. He is going for something else -- for lack of a better word --ART!  --and dramatic truth.   The camera work is by the director's younger brother Osama Rasheed  -- which make this sort of a family affair.

Qarantina is a beautifully shot highly stylized film with rich warm colors that impart a painterly effect to every scene.  The camera is almost always stationary so that people enter the frame and stay here until they are done with their work. What emerges is a series of slowly held lingering tableaux which tell a linear story with no overt moralizing. What you see is what you get. There is no background music which only adds to the feeling of stark reality.  We don't really know why the killer kills but we do find out that he was once a university student who for some reason dropped out to become a hired gun. None of the people in the film have a back story to speak of and yet we begin to care about them and hope that at least some will escape the misery around them. Why life in Baghdad is such hell does not need to be explained. The roving gun barrel view of the city is enough  to remind us of the hellish recent history.  So we just get caught up in this microcosm - This story of a few people trapped in a closed space -- an emotional Quarantine --and a network of personal relationships that need to be redefined.  Because they are intolerable!  My feeling was that this was in some weird way Camus' Stranger transferred from Algiers to Iraq -the same kind of inevitability, the same kind of primacy of feeling over reason --the same kind of morality without moralizing.  Existentialisme a l'Arabe! 
All the actors are so perfect in their roles that there doesn't seem to have been any directing. The players clearly believe in the play. When you are confronted by a work of cinematic art like this it is hard to say what it is about it that moves you -- it just does.  Rasheed has come up with a very profound film that doesn't seem to be about anything and yet it is about everything -- and maybe that is as good a definition of art as any. After watching his city get torn apart by the American-led foreign occupation, and currently living through the insurgency violence that is still going on, Oday Rasheed is one of only a few Iraqi filmmakers working in Baghdad today. Hats off and here's hoping we will see more of his work in the near future.


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