Preview: Son of Babylon

A Yorkshire filmmaker whose first feature film was in the running for an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards is now turning her cinematic eye to the subject of homelessness. By Sophie Haydock

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Set in Iraq in 2003, two weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Son Of Babylon is a brilliantly shot, moving film that deals with the nature of loss, human endurance and compassion. Produced by Yorkshire-based Isabelle Stead alongside the Iraqi director Mohamed Al-Daradji, the film was shot last year on location in Iraq and became the country’s official entry for best foreign language film at this year’s Academy Award.

It’s won a series of rave reviews but for Stead, to win an Oscar would have been “a dream come true”. Stead argues that far from basking in the glory of a successful film, the publicity would have helped make people around the world aware of what’s been happening in Iraq – “not to the soldiers, but the plight of the local people during and after Saddam Hussein’s regime”.

The film focuses on a Kurdish boy and his grandmother in a journey across Iraq – from the mountains of Kurdistan to the sands of Babylon. The grandmother is determined to discover the fate of her missing son, Ahmed’s father – a jailed former soldier who never returned from war. He is presumed buried in a mass grave in the south.

“Son of Babylon is loosely based on the story of Mohamed’s life growing up with his aunt,” says Stead. “Her son went missing in the Iraq-Iran war. When Mohamed was a boy, he’d see his aunt at parties, at weddings. She’d always be crying about her missing son.”

The film inspired Stead and Al-Daradji to set up their own charity, the Iraq Missing Campaign, to help the people of Iraq come to terms with the horrors of Hussein’s regime. Over one million people have gone missing in Iraq in what has been described as ethnic cleansing. Weeks after the regime fell in 2003, mass graves were discovered.

“This opened old wounds again,” Stead says. “The Iraqi government began excavations, and we hoped that our film, in looking at that subject, would provide a mouthpiece for an NGO to raise awareness of what happened to those unidentified people in the mass graves. But as we went along, we realised there wasn’t an NGO doing that. So we set up our own.” Part of their aim is for the United Nations to recognise what happened in Iraq as genocide.

Son of Babylon has certainly earned the pair acclaim and attention. It has already won several awards, including two at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival, the Amnesty International Film Award – established to raise the issue of human rights with cinema audiences – and the Peace Film Award.

Stead says winning that award was the highlight of her career. “Being in the cinema in Berlin with the boy who played Ahmed [Yasser Talib] was fantastic. He came from a small village in northern Iraq and had never left his country or been to the cinema. I watched him laugh and cry and get angry with us for showing him on the big screen in his underpants, in a scene where his grandma washes him. That has to be one of the best career highs I’ll ever experience.”

Stead and Al-Daradji are now preparing to focus on issues closer to home. The duo want their next film to draw attention to the thousands of people who are homeless or in temporary accommodation in this country.

“My conscience is pricking about the issues affecting the UK. What is the government doing here to protect people who are vulnerable, like those who have been made homeless because of the economic crisis?”

Althought it was never their plan to make social-impact films, Stead is focused.

“The more you get into this, the more you realise what isn’t being done and what isn’t being said. You can’t turn away. You then recognise you’re in a position of responsibility.”

Son of Babylon is at cinemas now. See and

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