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Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs – The Iraqi Connection (Samir, 2002)


    It’s not well-publicized, at least in America, that about 25% of the Jews that migrated to help form the nation of Israel were from Iraq, but that somewhat obscured fragment of world history forms the subject of documentarian Samir’s Forget Baghdad. Combining video montage, interviews with several émigrés, personal observations and some eye opening found footage, the director probes the history and current status of the “Mizrahim”, or Arab Jews. Starting from his own experience as the son of an immigrant from Iraqi, Samir, who grew up in Switzerland, decides to record a journey to Israel in which he questioned several writers about their experiences before and since they made their decision to leave their homeland of Iraq. What he finds is not exactly revelatory, but still manages to surprise in bursts. The men describe their feelings about how they were seen primarily as Jews in Iraq, but are looked at first as Arabs in Israel. As outsiders in a country comprised mainly of exiles, they describe feeling a good amount of pressure to conform to the customs and languages of their new home and as evidence of those pressures Samir includes footage from documentary and narrative films that seems to strongly advocate an Israel made homogenous through interracial marriage. Tellingly, three of the four writers now write primarily in Hebrew instead of their native Arabic, and, perhaps more significantly, the lone holdout among the group describes a more profound sort of alienation than the others do.


      With even those who actually lived in Iraq turning their backs somewhat on their roots, the choice to document their transition to Israel becomes a sound one. As Samir interviews his participants, he uses a split screen technique to show fragments of the past. The speakers’ mementos and pictures are shown alongside definitions of words that they use and scraps of film footage to keep the interview sessions from feeling like a procession of talking heads. When that split screen is used to show what seem like randomly chosen close-ups of the speaker, this visually attractive montage technique is a bit less effective. Since most of the interviewees seem content to let the past and their heritage fade away, the visual representations of what they’re giving up are significant and revealing. Still, Samir does his best to make the audience understand the difficulty that these people face in sustaining past identity when the Arabs are considered Israeli enemies. The men say that discussing their problems as Arab Israelis feels taboo, since their race’s problems can’t compare to the horrors of the Holocaust. Of course the plights faced by four intelligent writers can’t be indicative of an entire group’s experience, and there’s not really a convincing argument to be made that, as writers, they’re necessarily the best storytellers, since a skilled interviewer can extract wonderful stories from the least likely sources. Forget Baghdad doesn’t really convey the plight of an entire people, however. Rather, its attempts to convey the experience of these specific men seems an attempt of the director to grow closer to an understanding of his own father and his own obscured history.


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Jeremy Heilman