Originally titled The Songs of My Motherland when it played at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, Marooned in Iraq also concerns the burdens endured by the Kurds, a persecuted and destitute people living in what seems like a permanent state of political turmoil. But it does so through the refracted light of absurdist humor, the only weapon left to people faced with impossible bleakness. Such an approach, coupled with the fact that the story's main players are adults rather than children, may not lessen the misery depicted, but it does make the terrible situations somehow less emotionally wrenching to watch.
The picture takes place in the early 1990s, in the immediate aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War and several years after Saddam Hussein tried to eradicate the Kurds living in his country by dropping chemical weapons on them. More than 5,000 Kurds were killed in the gas attacks, and thousands more suffered the aftereffects.
Structured as a road trip, the film follows the three surviving members of a popular Kurdish musical group -- the elderly but still vibrant Mirzah (Shahab Ebrahimi, who, like nearly everyone in the cast, is a nonprofessional) and his two adult sons, Barat and Audeh (Faegh Mohammadi and Allah-Morad Rashtian, respectively) -- as they travel across northern Iran and into Iraq in search of Mirzah's former wife, who has sent a message saying she desperately needs his help. Hanareh (Iran Ghobadi, the director's mother) was the band's singer until the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 decreed that women were no longer permitted to sing in public. She left Mirzah for his best friend and fellow band member Seyed, who was willing to move to Iraq, where Hanareh could still perform. Despite the passage of 23 years, Mirzah has never stopped loving her.
Father and sons encounter both obstacles and adventures on their journey, as each clue brings them closer to Hanareh's whereabouts. Along the way, the motorcycle-riding bachelor Barat falls in love with a woman he can't see but has heard singing. Audeh, who had to leave his seven wives and 13 daughters behind in order to accompany his father, constantly complains that he has no sons.
As the men cross into Iraq and see the destruction inflicted upon the Kurds by Saddam Hussein, the film's mood darkens. So deftly and unobtrusively is this tonal transition handled, however, that it's like the incremental shift of a summer sky from light to dusk and then slowly into darkness.
Marooned in Iraq was shot on location, with warplanes screeching overhead and land mines a constant danger, but like A Time for Drunken Horses, its simplicity of style seems as much an aesthetic choice as a practical necessity.
The actors are all marvelous. With his bushy mustache and wild hair, Rashtian looks like a cross between Harpo Marx and Stalin, but has the jovial, put-upon demeanor of a henpecked husband who thinks he rules the roost. Hidden behind green motorcycle goggles for a good half of the film, the macho Mohammadi reveals an unexpected vulnerability that adds tremendous poignancy to his role. While the constant bickering between the brothers -- and among just about all the other characters -- will feel familiar to American viewers, the movie offers a fascinating glimpse into a decidedly different culture.
Perhaps Ghobadi's greatest gift is the strong humanistic touch he brings to his work. We see not only how difficult life is for the Kurds, but also the resiliency, passion, and compassion with which the people face these difficulties. The director's characters aren't stand-ins for all mankind, but they do reflect a kind of pervasive human nature. Certainly the emotions they raise in us resonate well beyond the borders of the story.