Film Explores Identity, But Words Get in the Way

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2004

THERE ARE TWO interesting things about "Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs – The Iraqi Connection," a documentary by the Swiss-based Iraqi filmmaker Samir about Iraqi Jews who have emigrated to Israel. The first, of course, is the film's subject matter, which is the complex question of identity for those people who, back in Iraq, were considered outsiders because of their Jewishness, and in Israel, are still considered aliens because of their Arab origins.

Known as Mizrahim, or "oriental" Jews (as compared with the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European background), the film's subjects talk at length about their mixed feelings toward their Iraqi birthplace – now the enemy – as well as toward their adopted homeland, where they are to some degree the victims of prejudice yet. The attempt to come to terms with this is perhaps best put by one man who refers to himself as being like a baklava, filled with alternating layers, each contributing to the overall sweetness of the cake.

The second interesting thing about the film is its structure, which, also like a baklava, is densely layered in a deliberate evocation of its subject matter. Edited into frequent split screens that place talking-head footage side-by-side with archival films, newsreels, excerpts from books and glimpses of photographs, the film is a visual echo of the multifaceted nature of being both an Arab and a Jew in a Jewish state that is, to put it in the mildest way possible, at odds with the Arab world. In fact, it gives the lie to the very notion that there even is such a thing as a monolithic "Arab world."

Where "Forget Baghdad" goes beyond interesting, though, to moderately annoying (or at least difficult to digest) is in its use of on-screen text. In addition to subtitles translating the spoken Arabic and Hebrew, Samir also uses occasional thematic titles, such as "Zionism?" and "Rassism" (German for "racism," using the filmmaker's adopted tongue). That's on top of words in Hebrew, Arabic and English that seem to pop up like typed text messages in the corner, as well as text crawls that have been digitally "projected" behind the subjects. What's more, some of the archival material shown on screen is written matter, making for scenes that, at times, demand processing three, four or five bits of linguistic data simultaneously.

It's not by accident either. The director goes on, in fact, for eight lengthy pages in the film's accompanying press kit, explicating such finer points of his "formal execution" as the use of picture in picture, montage, eight visual planes and three sound planes.

It's fascinating stuff if you're a film theory buff, but the presentation makes, at least for nonspeakers of Arabic and Hebrew, who must pay extra attention to subtitles, something of a distraction.

It also serves, I think, to undercut, rather than underscore, Samir's message of cultural multifariousness. The speakers' words are themselves quite eloquent without the director cluttering up the screen with needlessly busy bits of what amounts to ad copy for a message that needs no hucksterism.

Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs – The Iraqi Connection (Unrated, 111 minutes) Contains some descriptions of violence. In Arabic, Hebrew and English with English subtitles. At Visions Bar Noir.

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