Our River... Our Sky: this Iraq War drama sacrifices depth for legibility

A strong lead performance from Darina Al Joundi can’t save this well-meaning film from feeling a little superficial in its mapping of the fallout from the US invasion of Iraq.

19 October 2023

By Ehsan Khoshbakht

Darina Al Joundi, Ali El Kareem and Zainab Jonda as Sara, Boatman and Reema in Our River... Our Sky (2021)
Sight and Sound

Our River… Our Sky is about resistance to insanity, the hardest struggle facing individuals caught up in collective, nationwide turmoil. Following a series of documentaries made in the Middle East, for her debut fiction feature (co-written by novelist Irada Al-Jubori) Maysoon Pachachi seeks out situations where humanity has been reduced to acts of survival. In Baghdad three years after the American invasion in 2003, a city rendered bleak and sterile to its inhabitants, characters resort to the defence mechanism of sardonic humour as they fantasise about escaping to a better world.

Sara, a writer and a single mother, played with a graceful despair by the Lebanese actor Darina Al Joundi, holds the centre of the film as storylines branch out to other characters in her neighbourhood and family. No longer able to write, Sara makes her living by filling out migration applications and writing letters of appeal to the US forces on behalf of detainees. Pachachi shows how the female body becomes subject to scrutiny and control, as intolerance towards women grows more pronounced within the sectarian war. Early on, the dead body of an alleged sex worker is recovered from the Tigris with words scribbled on it, warning other women against a similar fate. Thanks to a well-intentioned eagerness to tell more, this potentially key narrative thread gets lost in a cluster of side stories of intolerance between Sunni and Shia, Muslim and Christian, the religious and the secular. There are some finer touches though.

In William Dieterle’s notorious and troubling Another Dawn (1937), British soldiers are engaged in a war to “build civilisation” in an unnamed Arab country (clearly Iraq). In the midst of battle, Errol Flynn jokingly informs his superiors that he has run out of ammunition, but not Arabs; natives are reduced to fleeting ghosts in dishdashas who speak gibberish. (In the absence of Arabic speakers in Hollywood, at least one Arab in the film speaks Greek!) Pachachi, reversing that trope, shrewdly avoids showing the perpetrators of violence. Instead of dehumanising the natives, as in classical Hollywood, her work humanises them; no matter who fires the shot, it is the ordinary people caught in the conflict who pay for it.

Zainab Joda as Reema in Our River... Our Sky (2021)

A co-production between three Western European and three Arab countries (Iraq is not one of them), Pachachi’s treatment of a traumatic experience nevertheless carries the ambiguous optimism of an outsider. Like other international co-productions in the Middle East, the film sacrifices the fervent authenticity of a complex situation in favour of global intelligibility, though there is a smart openness about the ending.

The film ends on 30 December 2006, the day of Saddam’s execution. We hear the news of his death as the baby of one of the characters is born, its cry heard against the skyline of Baghdad. A new Iraq is born? The film dismisses this notion as the camera lingers long enough to show a storm coming through, changing the steely grey sky to dark yellow, an ominous sign of the hard years ahead and the continuation of bloody atrocities. The baby is not stillborn, but the future might be.

Our River… Our Sky (the original Arabic title roughly translates to ‘Everything Is Not’) serves as an honourable checklist rather than a map of the Iraqi tragedy. Compared with great Arab films such as Tewfik Saleh’s newly revived and highly praised The Dupes (aka Al-Makhdu’un, 1972), which give us a real sense of the scars of the Middle East, this film does not provide deep insight. We have already seen the ‘breaking news’: the first rockets hitting Baghdad on 19 March 2003, body cameras showing house-to-house searches by US soldiers. I taped these off television as they were happening, hoping that one day, cinema, the art of ‘slow news’, could counter their narrative. This film, worthy as it is, might be slightly too fast and slapdash for the slow news I would have loved to see from the Iraqi point of view.

► Our River… Our Sky is in UK cinemas now.

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