Year released: 2013
Directed by: Nissim Dayan
Daniel Gad as Kabi, a young man caught between opposing sides.
Yasmin Ayun as Rachelle, the beautiful wife of Kabi’s uncle.
Igal Naor as Salman, Kabi’s father.
Tawfeek Barhom as Adnan, a young communist and friend of Kabi’s.
Plot summary: Set between 1950 and 1951, Farewell Baghdad chronicles the events leading up to the exile of the Jewish community in Iraq, told through the eyes of a young man, Kabi, who is caught between Zionists and communists, as well as those who wish to stay in Baghdad.
Farewell Baghdad is a 2013 Israeli film, and was chosen by Israel for their nomination for the best foreign language film Academy Award. It is a low-key historic film, adapted from a novel; in many ways, this last detail is telling throughout the film.
The story follows 15-year-old Kabi in the months leading up to the exile/exodus of the Jews from Iraq in the early 1950s. Kabi is a somewhat confused young man, struggling to understand the implications of Zionism and how it relates to his life; after his uncle is imprisoned by government agents after publishing an anti-regime piece in the newspaper that he works for, Kabi begins to question what means the most to him in his life. Ultimately, his goal becomes to do anything that he can to free his uncle. However, this drive is not very well presented in the film; Kabi mostly seems to drift from place to place, gets caught up in a conversation for a while, and then drifts off somewhere else. He also sort-of falls in love twice, although nothing much comes of either of these situations.
This vagueness may make you think of Iranian cinema, with its open-ended messages and plots. This, however, is not an accurate comparison. Farewell Baghdad, instead, feels like quite a normal historical drama film tonally. It has an almost soap-opera quality to much of it, with many of the characters never being fleshed out enough for the audience to care about them. They talk; they walk; they hear plot-relevant details; sometimes they fight. Kabi himself is somewhat of a blank slate, and seems to be heavily influenced by everyone around him, and whatever they are saying at the time; this makes sense considering his young age, but the problem is that Daniel Gad looks much older than 15, both facially, and in the fact that he is built like a brick-shit house. All of this adds up to a main character that doesn’t seem to know what he is doing, even when he is given agency.
Perhaps the only character that is fleshed-out to any real degree is Rachelle, Kabi’s uncle’s wife, for whom he feels an unreciprocated lover for. Rachelle acts outside of the film’s boundaries, living her own life, the consequences of which are revealed in the last scene of the film; she may be quite self-serving, but the decisions that she makes are her own. She is easily the character I liked the most in this film, and the only one who doesn’t entirely feel to be fulfilling an allegorical role (although her decision at the end of the film does somewhat contradict this). Most of the other characters speak a lot, but not much is said other than sharing of political ideas, much of which will not pique the interest of the casual viewer due to the information needed to truly understand it. Much of it is obvious: there are Zionists who want to return to Israel; anti-Zionists who believe their home is there in Baghdad; communists who support the Soviets and share an anti-Zionist sentiment; the members of the authoritarian Muslim regime, who are definitely anti-Zionist. All of these sides want Kabi in some form or other, but they never actually butt heads at any real point, so no real sense of danger or urgency is achieved.
Another problem, returning to my opening statement, is that you can feel it being an adaptation of a novel – the dialogue is near-constant, with very few scenes that do not start and end with characters speaking. Particularly near the beginning, we are subjected to constant changes of scene, as Kabi goes from place-to-place trying to sort out what is going on with his uncle; we are introduced to a huge host of characters, some of whom come back into it later, some of whom are barely seen again. Yet for the constant change of scenes, the film feels punishingly slow. There is a short part where it appears that Kabi is going to become a pigeon handler, like his friend’s father; this plot point is dropped without any notification to the audience, which is peculiar considering that the Hebrew title for the film is The Dove Flyer. It is not until the final twenty minutes that the film really starts to feel as if it is hitting its stride.
The last twenty minutes are easily the best parts of the film. It seems to slow down its dialogue and give us some levity as the seriousness of the situation becomes apparent; the actions happening on-screen now have weight, and we delivered aspects of the film by them being shown to us, not told to us like throughout the rest of the film. The final scene of the Jews’ exodus from the city that they have lived in for “70 generations”, and Kabi realising that not everyone is leaving with him and his family, is powerful; I just wish that the rest of the film had the same amount of weight to it.
Overall, this is not a bad film, just one that has not made the most of the weighty subject matter. The cinematography is generally quite basic and the colour palette mostly drab, other than some quite nice shots that are, again, towards the end of the film. It could have been two hours long or more, with more time given to shots of the environment and surrounding countryside, or just more time lingering on the characters’ emotions instead of their political or personal discussions. Although I found the script to be somewhat undercooked, a fascinating aspect of the film is that it is the first film to be filmed almost entirely in the Baghdad Jewish Arabic dialect. This tongue, now thought to be almost extinct as a language, is allowed to exist here in its original and natural form – a daring technique for a director to undertake, especially when you consider high regarded films such as Schindler’s List being shot in English, despite their setting. This is a hugely respectable and fascinating take on language and culture by the director; if only he had been as adventurous as this in every other sense.