Review: “In My Mother’s Arms”—a powerful new Iraqi documentary tells the heart-tugging story of a common hero saving Iraq’s abandoned war orphans
Of all the consequences of the Iraq War, none is as heart-breaking as the tenuous existence of its young orphans, which Unicef’s most recent estimates put at 800,000. Hope and sadness are the inextricable polarities of Iraqi brothers Atia and Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji’s engrossing documentary, In My Mother’s Arms (2011), a magnificent testament to the oft-repeated saying, ‘You can’t change the entire world but you can make a difference in the lives of a few people you encounter along the way.’ The film tells the remarkable story of Husham Al Thabe, a middle class Iraqi man in his thirties, who struggles to house and care for 32 orphaned young boys in the modest two bedroom house he rents in Al-Sadar district, one of Baghdad’s poorest and most dangerous districts and a hub of sectarian violence. He does this because he can’t bear to see the boys, who have already experienced the trauma of losing their families, go back to state run orphanages where there is rampant sexual and physical abuse and neglect.
Shot over 9 months in 2009-10, the film interweaves the daily experiences of Husham, who is struggling to keep his operation afloat without any financial support from the Iraqi government, and of Saif, Mohamed and Saleh, three of the orphans Husham cares for. While the overt theme is the welfare of Iraq’s children, the film masterfully questions the efficacy of war. The tyrant Saddam is gone and the country has been rid of its non-existent weapons of mass destruction, but is Iraq better off? Hundreds of thousands are without families; an entire generation has been lost; continuous military violence and targeted bombing have left the country in shambles in every imaginable way; and corruption is rampant. The documentary had its U.S. premiere earlier this month at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF 55) and is currently on the international festival circuit.
In My Mother’s Arms came about through serendipity and many have said God’s will. In 2009, on the heels of the American pull-out on December 16, 2011, Mohamed Al Daradji and his brother, Atia, had just wrapped production on their acclaimed feature film, Son of Babylon, which was filmed entirely on location in Iraq. Atia, who was based in Baghdad, near Sadr City, received a cold call from Husham requesting a donation for the boys. Atia went to meet Husham and was so taken, that he began filming immediately. When he showed the footage to his brother Mohamed, their next film was launched and the brothers tracked Husham and the boys for nine months.
The film begins with shaky car footage of Husham trolling the streets of a war-ravaged neighborhood looking for street children. He finds two young boys eking out an existence by sleeping under a road crossing and begging for food and takes them in. A radio news program sets the context—75 teens have been newly imprisoned in Iraqi youth detention centers under Article 4 of Iraq’s Anti-Terrorism Law. There are accusations that wide scale abuses in state run orphanages have made them breeding grounds for young criminals who are being recruited by sectarian terrorist groups for their operations. Once behind bars, the teens asked to be in their mother’s arms.
Husham worked for a private Kurdish orphanage in Iraq that was disbanded in 2007. He could not bear to see those children go into state-run orphanages, so he personally took them on, setting up a makeshift facility in a private residence. Ironically, he has to beg for the money he needs to stay afloat to take begging children off the streets and relies entirely on private donations for survival. At the time of the filming, Husham had 32 boys and was assisted by 6 male workers whom he paid modest wages. Under Husham’s care, the boys have been given a new lease on life. Slowly, they are starting to come out of their shells and struggling to forge new identities but most have persistent trust issues, behavioral problems, and issues with concentration. It is heart-piercing when boys talk with each about their need for nurturing and a mother’s unconditional love. Sadly, Husham cannot afford to pay professional female caregivers. It is left to conjecture why no Iraqi women have volunteered their services, but it is clear that the one thing that will make the most difference to these boys—female nurturing—is out of grasp.
Spartan editing has the film shifting back and forth in time. Husham is in constant motion as he performs administrative and fundraising duties and interacts in real time with the boys. He also periodically views video footage of he has shot over of the years of the boys, much of which seems suitable for use as evidence to indict corrupt caregivers. We witness Husham making the rounds, eliciting monthly donations from compassionate local community members, but in the end, he just barely scrapes by. There are some vague promises of longer term help from various sectarian leaders. When he visits Iraq’s Ministry of Social Services, who it seems would be most concerned with child welfare, the officials act shamefully, as if they can’t be bothered with his problems or the actual children whose welfare they should be protecting. Even as Husham explains how well the children are doing well in school and the activities they are involved in, such as participation in the country’s elite diving team, they insist that the children would fare better in a state run orphanage and in orphan schools despite the abuses there. This is captured twice on film and makes an indelible impression of Iraq’s institutional callousness.
The rumble of bombs exploding nearby and frequent power outages are the realities of life in this post-war hell hole. There are also moments of celebration, playfulness, squabbling, discipline, and coping. At one point, Husham humorously blurts out, “On top of everything, I have moody teenagers.”
Three boys’ stories are laced with ineffable sorrow and hope, a reality that drives the film and Husham—he has to succeed because these boys have no else they can depend on, nowhere else that is safe to go.
Saif (pronounced “Safe”) is 7, has a vacant look in his eyes and is prone to fighting as a response to frequent teasing by the other boys who call him “Majuda,” his dead mother’s name. The young Kurdish boy is so traumatized that he actually doesn’t remember his mother or his father, only his brothers. Although he sheds many tears, he sings like an angel, soulfully wailing poetic lines of anguish and loss. “My mother is so precious. She is a symbol of peace during difficult times. She looks into my eyes and knows what I am thinking. She never tires of caring for me. She’s so precious. God made her an angel. My mum is kind and will always be special. God made her an angel.”
Mohamad Waal, one of the oldest boys at 15, is a good student, a star diver on Iraq’s national diving team, with an innate talent for music and the keyboard. He recalls being burned and forbidden to play by a family in Bursa that previously cared for him. He escaped to Baghdad and was taken to a state orphanage where he was given poor food, had little recreation and wasn’t allowed to go to school. He escaped and met Husham. A deeply caring and influential ‘big brother’ figure for the other children, there is something incredibly inspiring about Mohammed, who has seen the worst of humanity yet still has hope.
Salah, 10, was beaten with metal cables, burned with cigarettes and forced to have sex with several men at his previous orphanage who intended to force him into prostitution. He is so traumatized that he doesn’t speak or attend school with the other boys.
It has taken time but it’s evident that the boys are learning to trust in each other and in Husham. When the landlord gives Husham and the boys just two weeks to vacate, a desperate search for a new home ensues. To distract from that frightful prospect, Husham gets a local theatre director to help the boys stage a therapeutic drama titled “In My Mother’s Arms,” which is also the refrain from a melancholy traditional song they sing frequently. As they practice and enact this at their fundraising event, they and their invited guests weep openly.
Nothing can match a mother’s love, but because of a caring, dedicated and tenacious individual like Husham Al Thabe, 32 young men have found the warm embrace of a father. This film’s agenda is well met—educating people outside Iraq of the perilous situation that Iraq’s orphans face and putting pressure on the Iraqi government to enact laws to protect its children. The filmmakers have also initiated a campaign to fund Husham’s orphanage and the British orgzniation is organizng it.
Run-time: 86 minutes, Arabic dialogue with English subtitles
Participants: Husham Al-Dhbe, Saif Slaam, Mohamed Waael, Salah Abass.
Crew: Directors/writers: Atia Jabarah Al-Daradji, Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji
Producers: Isabelle Stead, Atia Jabarah Al-Daradji
Editors: Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji, Ian Watson
Companies: Human Film UK/NL & Iraq Al Rafidain IQ in co-production with Al-Jazeera English
Film supported by: Netherlands Film Fund, Sanad Abu Dhabi IFF, Gothenburg IFF Film Fund, San Sebastian Cinema in Motion.
More about the Al-Daradji brothers and their film activism:
Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji: Sundance fellow and Variety’s Middle Eastern Filmmaker of the year 2010, Mohamed Al-Daradji studied film and television Production at the Media Academy in Hilversem, before travelling to the UK to complete two Master degrees in Cinematography and Directing at the Northern Film School in Leeds, winning the prestigious Kodak Student Award for best commercial in Cinematography.
Following the collapse of Saddam’s regime in 2003, Mohamed returned to Iraq to make his first feature film Ahlaam, an insight into the chaos and confusion of a war-torn Iraq following 3 decades of dictatorship. Ahlaam screened at over 125 international film festivals, received over 22 awards, and represented Iraq for Oscar and Golden Globe Consideration in 2007. Click here to watch Ahlaam online.
Mohamed’s highly acclaimed second feature film, Son of Babylon (2010), was shot entirely on location in Iraq in 2008-009 and addressed the critical issue of Iraq’s estimated 1 million people who remain missing and unidentified following 40 years of conflict. The story is told through the eyes of an orphan, Ahmed, who sets off across Iraq in search of his missing father three weeks after the fall of Saddam in April 2003. His next fiction film The Train Station, tells the story of a female suicide bomber and was selected for Cannes IFF, L’Atelier 2011.
Atia Jabarah Al-Daradji: Born in Baghdad in 1964, Atia founded Iraq Al Rafidain, Iraq’s premier film production company in 2004 and has established himself as one of the Middle-East’s most prominent feature film and documentary producers. He has produced of his brother Mohamed’s films.
Social Activism: After making In My Mother’s Arms, the filmmaking team found an established foundation in the UK, Orphans in Need, that assists children all over the Middle East and they agreed to financially sponsor the 32 children in Husham’s orphanage and additional children he takes on. To make a general donation to Orphans in Need, click here or phone 1 866 503-0729. To make a donation to Husham’s orphanage, go to the Iraqi Orphanage Fundraising page sponsored at Just Giving.
Following the great success of Son of Babylon, Mohamed and Atia Al-Daradji, in collaboration with Isabelle Stead, the film companies Human Film and Iraq Al-Rafidain, and Iraq’s Missing Persons Organization (IMPO) spearheaded “Iraq’s Missing Campaign” which is striving to change the law about missing persons in Iraq. With the help of the mayor of Geneva, this campaign recently brought together Iraq’s Human Rights minister with the director general of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) to watch Son of Babylon and the two are about to embark on a pilot project to identify some of Iraq’s missing utilizing DNA technology. Click here to read about and sign Iraq’s Missing Persons Petition.