A Memorable Odyssey
By C. Naseer Ahmad
“Memories light the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories of the way we were.”
Almost half a century ago, these lyrics were on the lips of millions and the award-winning movie containing the popular song achieved much success at the box office. According to CNN, the National Endowment for the Arts ranked it among the top 300 songs of the last century.
Despite the movie’s popularity, one remembers that it was a fictionalized story about the screen writer’s college days and the experience with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the unpleasant McCarthy era in America.
Memories, the collective set of our joys, our sorrows and everything in between, make us what we are and what we like to be. So it will be remembered that this year, the "Iraqi Odyssey" is Switzerland's Official Entry for the 88th Academy Awards and Oscar nominee in the 2016 Best Foreign Language Film Category.
The screening of this beautiful documentary film in Washington, DC was itself memorable. The Swiss Embassy hosted this event which brought together many families of the Iraqi Diaspora. Included in this gathering was a scholar who grew up in Manchester with an Iraqi as well as Pakistani heritage.
The movie director Samir discussed his interesting project with the engaged audience with some thought-provoking questions like: "How did it come to this, that all our dreams of a renaissance in the Arab world and the wish for a transformation into a modern, just society were so abruptly and brutally destroyed? Is there a possibility to reconstruct this dream by building on our experiences of migration?”
Through the "Iraqi Odyssey” Samir the award-winning filmmaker presents the saga of a family that is spread over the globe.
Samir Jamal Al Din was born in Baghdad. Since his early age, he has lived in Switzerland. While only a handful members of his extended family still remain in Iraq, a great number of his extended family members are scattered all over the world—Abu Dhabi, Auckland, Sydney, Los Angeles, Buffalo, London, Paris, Zurich, and Moscow.
Through memories – sweet and otherwise like departures and displacements – of his relatives, Samir shines in his gift of storytelling. The movie “also chronicles how Iraqis' dreams of building a modern and just society after their nation achieved independence in the 1950s were brutally dashed over the course of half a century.”
In person, Samir is relaxed, smiling and jovial. He did not appear to bring a magic carpet from Baghdad or Zurich but there was definitely some wizardry involved when Samir spoke. In an instant, the audience in their comfortable seats in this beautiful diplomatic abode on Cathedral Avenue was transported across the oceans to the alleys of the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf and then into the libraries learning about the treasure troves.
Moments later, the audience was in the boat crossing the Euphrates and maybe even Tigress. There they saw Samir’s grandfather tossing his black turban into the river so as to facilitate paying his fair share of the ride instead of getting a free ride. Was the grandfather a “mubellegh al risala” or the carrier of the message? Knowing the religious rank of the grandfather did not matter because the “Iraqi Odyssey” is not a film about religion.
As the film and its discussion moved along, it was clear that nostalgia about the liberal Iraq is still alive. The refreshing thing however is to learn that Samir is neither pessimistic nor a wide eyed wishful thinker. He seems to be in touch with reality and with a lot of people in Iraq. Based on his communications with the Iraqis of today – leaving aside the ISIS types whom he considers idiots – Samir is hopeful about the future. He sees changes occurring that could lead to improvements in the society.
When reminiscing about the better days gone by, it is natural to wish for their return. Samir is however realistic and thinks the liberal societies in Iraq or other parts of the Middle East may not come back just like the glory days of the Abbasids. But as technology is ubiquitous it allows instant communication thereby making it difficult for tyranny and rigid structure to last long.
In its review, the Hollywood Reporter noted that through the Iraqi Odyssey “Samir turns his insight on the personal story of his own family of middle-class professionals, the descendants of his patriarchal grandfather whose liberal attitude towards women, religion, the arts, Communism, the army and life in general is reflected in the next two generations of independent thinkers.”
Is this a story that audience can relate to? Nowadays, considering the migration around the world over the last few decades, it is not so unusual to have an extended family spread in different parts of the world. But it is not often to have an aunt, uncle or cousin in Moscow, Paris, New York and New Zealand – some of whom might have been activists in Iraq’s Communist Party that was dismantled under Saddam Hussein, as in the case of Samir’s extended family.
It requires a gifted storyteller like Samir to weave the mosaic as he did during his presentation at the residence of Ambassador Martin Dahinden – who incidentally has been in Swat, the Switzerland of Pakistan during the relief effort in the aftermath of the massive floods- whom Samir knew during student days. So through his aunts, uncles and cousins, the viewers will get to know Iraq which is not fixated on ISIS. And, when they do return briefly to Iraq, they find the country unrecognizable.
With 3D (three dimensional) technology, the movie applies modern technology and contains memories of an unforgettable odyssey. But, it is not the advanced technology that makes the movie and the director stand out. Rather, the real and outstanding third dimension is the human dimension. So when Samir talks, whether through his camera or vocally, it is an absolute joy to listen.