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Hanging Garden: Unveiling Symbolism in Modern Iraqi Cinema


*Spoilers Incoming* Imagine attending a private screening of an Iraqi film titled "Hanging Garden," expecting a portrayal of the legendary hanging gardens of Babylon and themes of ancient Mesopotamia. Instead, you find yourself captivated by a movie far more sinister, symbolic, and thought- provoking than its title suggests.

In the film directed by Ahmed Yaseen, "Hanging Gardens" is not a series of ascending tiered gardens, but it is the name of an imaginary sanitary landfill in Baghdad where the events of the movie take place.

"It was very difficult for me filming in the environment of the landfill; the people who live there had no idea what we were doing. I actually used to get sick during the early days of filming there," said Hussein Mohammed, the lead actor.


A young Iraqi rubbish picker named Asaad rescues an American sex doll and brings her home where he lives alone with his older brother. Tension arises between the two, causing the young child - played by Hussein Mohammed - to run away from home with the sex doll, forcing him to utilize the doll to get money in order to survive.

Although the main plot of the movie may seem simple, it should not be taken at face value. In my opinion, here are the main undertones that the movie symbolically portrays:



The Portrayal of Women


One of the most noticeable themes of the film is "women." When researching the cast of the movie, you won't find any actresses, and that is intentional, in my opinion, for women in the movie are present, but they are present solely as objects. From the main female token in the film being a literal sex doll, to the women in the erotic magazines that Hussein finds in the dump and sells, the representation of women in the movie is a reflection of how often women are reduced in our modern Iraqi society. Perhaps the only actual female actress in the movie is the character of the "neighbor," which Asaad’s older brother - played by Wissam Diyaa - is seen peeking at her through a hole in the wall and pleasuring himself.

But maybe the most painful portrayal of women in the film is when the speakers at the hanging garden dump start announcing that an anonymous dead body had been found. The scene cuts to a coffin being brought into a mosque, and one of the men carrying it says to the Imam, "No one will claim her; she's an honor killing victim," alluding to the rising gender-based violence in Iraq. Between the years 2020 and 2021, over 22,000 cases were reported, according to the UN children's agency UNICEF. "The idea of the Iraqi woman holds a special meaning in the hearts of all Iraqis. However, there are some individuals who tried to infiltrate their own toxic mindsets on what a woman is and how she should be treated," - Ali Farhan.


Maternity and Childhood Innocence


The duality that Asaad displays while engaging with the doll is evident. Around his older brother or his friend, he showcases the stereotypical toxic masculinity characteristics taught to him by the male figures surrounding him, speaking to the doll in a very derogatory manner and viewing it as nothing but a plaything. However, when he's alone, we see him bathing her, covering her up with clothes, and he even giving her a name "Salwa."

When alone, Asaad thinks of the doll as a source of the maternal emotions he so desperately craves. He is seen lying next to her innocently, anticipating the times she blurts out a sound and feeling very protective when the boys of the area had their way with her.



It is this childhood innocence that Asaad privately displays that clashes with the avalanche of loss of innocence as portrayed by the long queue of underage boys waiting their turn to pay a few dollars for 30 minutes alone with the doll inside the back of the rickshaw that Asaad's friend owned.

The themes of maternity extend into the giant dump where Ataa and his brother make a living searching for scrap to sell.


There, they stumble upon the body of an infant, in which they decide to put in a wooden box and burn instead of burying it like they did the "last time." Although this scene only ran for a few minutes and was forgotten, for it had no impact on the events that took place afterward, it only adds a layer of depth to the message behind it. For abortion is punishable by imprisonment in jail for a year and a fine according to the Iraqi Penal Code, birth control and planned parenthood are still dictated and influenced by outdated societal beliefs and traditions, and poverty is on the rise, resulting in newly born children being thrown in the dumps.


The Blurred Lines of Morality

Watching the film as an Iraqi, you might laugh and find the comedic aspect of it much more easily than viewing it from the lens of a foreigner, for we as Iraqis have grown desensitized to a lot of the issues displayed in the film. Although the director of the film, Ahmed Yaseen, describes the film as a comedy-drama, it is at best an intensely dark comedy. And in that cognitive dissonance lies the blurred lines between where morality lies and where it should be.

We see Ataa holding an Iraqi flag stained with the blood of a "Tishreen martyr," alluding to the 2019 October protests where 500 Iraqis were killed and 21 thousand were injured for protesting their right to employment, electricity, and other basic rights. The flag is later used in covering the roof of the back of the rickshaw where Ataa put the doll to rent her out. However, one of the boys objected, saying that the flag has the word "Allah" in it, and he couldn't defile God's name by doing such an act under the flag. Ataa then cuts out the god's name from the flag. As the tension rises and events accelerate, it is that specific act, out of the many immoral acts displayed in the movie, that outraged the grown-ups in the movie the most. The phrase "Where is Allah!" was yelled at the frightened children with the deformed flag on full display to the viewers.


The powerful phrase is repeated, where is God? Does he see the land and people beneath the soaring flag that holds his name?


Conclusion

Much like Ataa and his brother, watching the movie, I found myself searching for scraps of truth amongst the giant landfill of symbolism that constitutes this film. For example, the t-shirt that Ataa is shown wearing in many scenes in the movie, which is pink, torn, and second-hand with the words "a slice of heaven" ironically printed on it.

But there was this one scene that personally brought tears to my eyes. Amongst a clear blue sky with no cloud in sight, the blazing Iraqi sun shone down on Ataa sitting quietly next to his sex doll on the roof of an abandoned USA troop tank, surrounded by piles of trash in a wasteland. And yes, to me at least, that scene made me think, "this, this is Iraq."


Creative Iraq will be following up next week regarding the impact that this film has had as its approaches its one year debut from the Venice Film Festival, and how stakeholders across the region can collaborate to support the Iraqi film sector and how original Iraqi story telling is necessary in so many ways.



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