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Finding a Female Connection in Post-War Iraq

Hanging Gardens is Iraqi filmmaker Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji’s first feature film. It follows twelve-year-old As’ad (Hussain Muhammad Jalil), who is trying to make ends meet in post-war Baghdad in Iraq. Living with his older brother Taha (Wissam Diyaa) close to the “Hanging Gardens” – the local nickname for the big rubbish dumps in Baghdad – As’ad needs to hustle to keep afloat.

The brothers make a living from collecting reusable trash and selling it to one of the older locals (Jawad Al Shakarji), but As’ad knows that he is ripping them off and seeks to make a business plan for himself. When he finds a blonde, blue-eyed sex doll dressed in a star-spangled bikini in the dump, he is not only attracted by it himself, he foresees that the local boys will be so too, and opens up a makeshift brothel in a motorized rickshaw.

However, this business venture might not be the most suitable in the cultural climate of urban Iraq and the boys soon discover that their free-spirited way of thinking – and love for women – is not appreciated.

Hanging Gardens had its world premiere in Venice’s Horizons Extra sidebar and is the first Iraqi film to have been selected to the prestigious Italian film festival. We spoke via Zoom to Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji from London, which is his home when Baghdad is not.

The film is to some extent about the impact that the American war has had on Iraqi society – and the blonde sex doll represents this among other things. What inspired you to make this film?

It is loosely based on a true story. Iraq was isolated during the sanctions, so Iraq was a big prison for us. We did not have access to anything outside the country and had no idea what was going on. Back in 2006 and 2007, the Americans invaded the country and it was a mess. One day, I was at the university waiting for a friend of mine, who was late and he showed up with a plastic bag in his hand and wanted us to meet in the university toilet.

He opened the plastic bag and there was a sex toy in it: a vagina. It was a shock for us. It was something we had not seen before.  And teenage boys started using it and one day a guy took it and he had boiled it to try to clean it up and it was completely destroyed. That was the end of the business for the toy.


And how did this story inspire you to make a film?

I watched the film American Sniper at Leicester Square in the cinema in London. I was very angry when I left the theatre. How can filmmakers sexualize war? Promote it? It is a story about a sniper looking very sexy and with a sexy gun shooting Iraqis – whether they are terrorists or not, they are human beings.

The sniper was made into a hero, and that was what triggered me to write Hanging Gardens. I left the theatre and I wanted to tell our story. I wanted to tell an authentic Iraqi story about what happened after the occupation.

The title of the film, Hanging Gardens, makes you think of Babylon, which was located near Baghdad. But in the film it is the nickname for a huge rubbish dump. Can you talk about the significance of the title?

The history of how the Hanging Gardens got built was because of a woman. The Iraqi Babylon king married a princess from Iran – from the Persian side of the land. She used to live in a green country, so when he brought her to the flat land of Babylon, she was homesick and he decided to build a garden for her.

The movie Hanging Gardens is in a way the American Hanging Gardens. Also, the real dump where we filmed in Baghdad is an environmental disaster and that was one of the issues I wanted to subtext.

There is a lot of fascination with women in the film. But there are not a lot of female characters in the film.  In fact, it is a discarded American sex doll that has the leading female role. Why is this?

I have seven sisters. I am from a big family. I am from a tribal family. My dad is a tribal chief. I have seen and experienced how hard it is for women to survive in this community. I wanted Hanging Gardens to speak of the imbalance of our society, where they don’t exist, in a way. One of the things that makes the Iraqi society so violent is about how we treat women. We do not give women access to life so they can at least do what they have to do as women.

Think about a big country like Iraq with such a long history, and we have not had a female leader. So Hanging Gardens is in a way a women’s story. I am a personally a little upset that we do not have a female character but the reality is that it reveals how society looks like without women existing.

It is important for As’ad to give the sex doll a name and he calls her Salwah. What does this name mean?

It means pleasure. It is a very common Iraqi name. My older brother had a girlfriend named Salwah, and it was a very complicated situation for him, because it is very hard to have a girlfriend in Iraq. You have to hide it, basically. No one can know about it. So he had to struggle to see his girlfriend. He could throw letters to her or kiss her quickly in the street and run away. He was working so hard for that. That is where I picked up the name.


As’ad also teaches the doll to speak Arabic. It is important for him that there is some sort of communication.

As’ad has not had a female figure in his life. Human beings like to communicate and that differentiates us from other beings. So for As’ad to listen to the woman’s voice fulfills something that is missing in his life. That is what encourages him to leave the house and become so independent.

As’ad seems to have learned from the American free-spirited way of thinking, and also sees business opportunities in the sex doll. Is As’ad just a fictive example of how young boys were influenced by American culture or to what extent does it reflect reality too?

It goes back to the way that Iraq was sanctioned and we were not allowed to trade – to import and export. So we were closed off from the world, isolated. The rest of the world was moving on with new technology, education etc. So there is a clash between the generations of pre-2003 and post-2003, when the Americans invaded Iraq. Post 2003 when the Americans came in, they left all of it open to the Iraqis.

So there is a generational conflict represented in the film. With the young As’ad and the old man – the radicalized man – it is like my generation and my father’s. I believe I am a free man but my dad is still radicalized in a way, because he was exposed to other ideologies such as communism and radical Islam. So As’ad and the old man represent two generations. As’ad is born around 2003, so he is a new generation of Iraq.

Those are the young people who demonstrated in 2019, the Tishreen Movement, and they are the young generation of Iraq who cannot really accept to live in a really old-school way. That is the core crisis in Iraqi society now. I am looking forward to seeing how my parents will react to the film.

Do you worry about how the film will be received in Iraq?

The audience is conservative in Iraq. But honestly, I don’t care. I am a person who was kidnapped twice in Iraq. I have a bullet in my leg, and I have spent ten days in an American military prison in Baghdad. All that because of holding a camera in the street to document what is happening. My experience has taught me not to be so polite, but to say things as they are.

We Iraqis paid a high price for our freedom. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein. We had an American invasion. So personally, I don’t want to compromise my own opinion. I don’t know how to play within the rules of society or the government and I always find myself crossing the lines. I believe that art’s mission is to help change the perception of things.

Art has to step up and say something different and tell them what they do not know or are trying to hide. Some people have to follow Salman Rushdie’s mission and do it. Otherwise, how do we gain knowledge?

The film is an Iraqi-Palestinian-Saudi Arabian-Egyptian-UK co-production. What are the challenges of creating a career in film and getting a film made in Iraq?

The Iraqi production company Ishtar Iraq Film Production behind it is a female company, by the way. Huda Al Kadhimi and her team are all females. So the team behind the film, which has no female characters, is all women. Financing Hanging Gardens was really hard for us. It was almost impossible. They were not willing to finance it, and they explained to me privately that it was because of the sex doll – even though it is not about sex.

So Huda Al Kadhimi had to remortgage her house to make the film. Filmmaking in Iraq is still a struggle because the country is still in a transition period going towards a democracy and nothing is clear yet. We are speaking about a country that lived in a dictatorship for more than forty years and suddenly the Americans come and they try to impose their way on us.

One of the biggest struggles for me was to bring the dolls to Baghdad. It is prohibited to important any sexual material to Iraq. So before we started shooting in May 2020, we wanted to smuggle them into the country in a diplomat’s luggage. That plan fell through, so we had to go through the legal channel and ship them from Canada to Iraq.

The dolls were stuck three months at the airport in Baghdad, and we had to connect with the Prime Minister’s office, the secret agency, the Ministry of Culture, and I even got the militia involved to push the system so much to let the dolls into the country.

After three months of begging, we managed to get the Prime Minister’s signature that the dolls could enter for a short period during the production. It turned out someone had had sex with the doll at the airport – so that confirmed the theme of my film.