Hanging Gardens (Janain Mualaqa) is a poignant film about a sweet boy with a surprising business idea, tackling subjects its Iraqi culture often finds taboo.
Swarming with flies and smouldering in the heat, the rubbish dumps of Baghdad – known locally as the titular ‘hanging gardens’ – aren’t exactly where one would choose to spend their days. But that’s where twelve year old As’ad (Wissam Diyaa) and his brother Taha make their money, collecting ‘valuable’ trash and selling it on to the shady local patriarch (Jawad Al Shakarji).
It’s not much of an income, and most of the cash goes towards paying for Taha’s jeep, but As’ad senses a new business opportunity when he stumbles upon something quite unusual for an Iraqi tip: a blonde sex doll. But Taha is repulsed by it, and gives As’ad an ultimatum: either ‘it’ goes or they both do. And so As’ad leaves, setting up camp in an abandoned tank deep in the thick of his hanging garden where he rather sweetly washes, names and looks after his new rubber companion. He soon recruits his friend to establishing a makeshift brothel in the back of a dilapidated rickshaw, and soon customers are lining up for some time with the… woman.
But the patriarchal society is not as understanding or free-spirited as As’ad, his friend and their customers. And so when the doll goes missing, As’ad must come to terms with the consequences of his risky scheme.
As’ad is a sweet boy, dreaming of a better life and keen to make some money. His plans are well intentioned, if a bit morally dubious, and it’s easy to understand why he’d risk it. Halal life is tough, and while director Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji isn’t trying to cause an uproar, he’s also clearly not afraid of exploring subjects often seen as ‘taboo’ with his first feature film. Sexuality and the want for material wealth being the main subjects in Hanging Gardens. The majority of the cast are locals, and it’s obvious the filmmakers understand this world, have lived in it, and have the desire to tell the stories they might not have seen on screen before.
The film has an intimacy (if you’ll pardon the word choice) to it, and Diyaa gives a stunning lead performance for such a young actor. He feels like a proper kid, has that innocence and free spirited nature, but also a sense of maturity, of having lived a hard life and knowing what it means to struggle. It’s also a film that is content to tell its small story, but also understands the power films have to impact culturally. As the film draws to a close, as the hanging gardens burn, it’s a poignant and powerful symbol of how fleeting the freedom from struggle is for those like As’ad; it feels like a moment when you sense the last vestiges of his aforementioned innocence slipping away.
Hanging Gardens is a poignant, extremely confident debut from Al Daradji, despite its eyebrow-raising premise. It’s a really affecting tale of a child’s free-spiritedness and the desire to alieve the struggle of life in war-torn Iraq, and definitely worth seeking out.
Hanging Gardens premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival on September 9, 2022.