Directed by Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji, Hanging Gardens (Janain mualaqa) is a blunt exposé of both poverty and corruption in Baghdad, as well as the negative effect of the United States occupation of Iraq.
Twelve-year-old As’ad (Hussain Muhammad Jalil) and his adult brother Taha (Wissam Diyaa) make their living searching through trash at a rubbish dump on the edge of Baghdad known as Hanging Gardens. For the most part, they salvage medals and plastics which they sell to the local kingpin Al Haji (Jawad Al Shakarji), who is hated and feared.
On the side, As’ad gathers pages from girlie magazines discarded by U.S. soldiers and sells them to fourteen-year-old Amir (Akram Mazen Ali), who resells them for a profit. Amir also bullies As’ad for failing to pay back a loan. But then As’ad makes an unexpected discovery: a life-size blonde, blue-eyed American sex doll that even “talks.” As’ad hides the doll in an abandoned U.S. military vehicle. When he shows the doll to Amir, their relationship is transformed into partners and friends.
The two boys develop a scheme. They dress up the doll, and rent her out for 15 minutes to an hour to sex-starved Iraqi boys and men. Soon they are making a healthy profit. But word gets around to Al Haji and his thugs, who does not like someone earning money without him taking a cut.
If the plot of Hanging Gardens seems unbelievable, it was actually inspired by a real incident in Al Daradji’s life. When he was at university, a friend showed him a sex toy he had found. According to Al Daradji, “It had a circle, like a car’s steering wheel and a vagina in the middle….Boys started using it and the toy became very famous in the University of Baghdad.”
There are some touching moments in Hanging Gardens. Taha develops an innocent at-a-distance flirtation with a woman across the street. But when her family finds out, they block the view because Taha is too poor to be considered a prospective husband. As for As’ad, he is so deprived of normal affection that he treats the doll as a companion and even gives her a name, Salwah (comfort). And Taha and As’ad, while scrounging in the dump, are occasionally confronted with the sad discovery of dead babies, for whom they try to give dignified burials.
Al Daradji finally decided to make Hanging Gardens after becoming outraged by the Clint Eastwood film American Sniper, which ignores the fact that Iraqis are human beings. For my own take on this disgusting film, see Selma, American Sniper and the Distortion of History.
Al Daradji has said that in Iraq he was kidnapped twice, shot in the leg and spent ten days in an American prison. Despite his harsh experiences, he has made a film that successfully balances comedy with societal commentary. It deserves greater exposure.