New thriller TV series features alternative portrait of Iraqi hero

The series blankets itself in the Iraqi point of view and there is little to no fanfare for both US and British occupying forces.
Sunday 26/01/2020
Attendees of “Baghdad Central” premiere at London’s British Film Institute. (Nazli Tarzi)
Unlikely heroes. Attendees of “Baghdad Central” premiere at London’s British Film Institute. (Nazli Tarzi)

LONDON - A stream of people entered the auditorium excitedly at London’s British Film Institute for the premiere of television’s first noir-styled political thriller set in US-occupied Baghdad.

“Baghdad Central,” a six-part programme, produced by Channel 4 in conjunction with Euston Films, centres on two men whose paths crossed because of war and the common experience of having served as policemen.

Weeks after Baghdad’s fall, a former policeman under Saddam Hussein, Muhsin al-Khafaji, is approached by a former Metropolitan Police officer, Frank Temple, (played by Bertie Carvel) to help build a new Iraqi  police force after Khafaji is imprisoned in Abu Ghraib in a case of mistaken identity. Khajafi defies the inner patriot inside him and agrees, moved not out of greed but the need to find his kidnapped daughter and provide medical assistance to another.

Waleed Zuaiter, playing Khafaji, described him as a reluctant hero. The widowed father of two girls finds solace in the maddening, murky context that Iraq became in 2003 through poetry, for which he has an undying penchant.

The drama plunges deep into personal relationships between people, families, institutions and larger events that dwarf the endeavours of those who marched in Baghdad feigning gallantry and native subjects that fought dogma and criminality even at the cost of their lives.

Relationships made for the screen are far from rosy; tarred, scarred and unreciprocated but remain, screenwriter Stephen Butchard expressed, “grounded in the world of extraordinary people.”

In the question period after the gripping opening episode, Butchard, who also wrote “House of Saddam,” said the script underwent significant changes before becoming a crime-thriller series production.

“What I love,” Carvel said of Butchard’s writing method, “is that he hides the keys. Some doors are locked, some half open and, as a viewer, you’re thinking, I want to see through that door.”

A hallmark of this Baghdad-noir thriller, besides its enigmatic characters and attention to detail, are the contemporaneous and prescient themes.

It is difficult to ignore the floodlight it shines on the women of Iraq. This is captured in a line spoken by Professor Zubeida Rashid in the first episode: “Women in today’s Iraq have a habit of disappearing.”

Other thematic threads include the subjects of kidnapping, honour and secularism.

“Women in invasion society had already been predated,” director Alice Troughton said in a conversation with Channel 4 presenter Samira Ahmed. Despite this, the female protagonists remain defiant and indispensable despite the tragic turn in their motherland.

The theatre of the Anglo-American invasion is where the thriller is set but, unlike previous films, serials focused on the Iraq invasion, “Baghdad Central” breaks from the caricature of Iraqi lives and history. Not only was the cast — overwhelmingly Middle Eastern and largely of Palestinian origin — scrupulously selected by Kate Rose James — but parallel experiences of life under occupation elevate the sense of relatability between the actors and their on-screen counterparts.

The unlikely heroes of “Baghdad Central” may force many to reconsider the lives that are caught up in lawlessness. As Troughton said: “No one planned to take care of the people of this country or their wellbeing,” which, she said, led her to think: “Where [does] Iraq sit in my consciousness in a bittersweet way?”

Commenting on a scene set in the underbelly of occupational violence, Abu Ghraib, Ahmed noted that “atrocities went on but you don’t dwell on the humiliation. “The Iraqi point of view has been ‘otherised’ in the media.”

Troughton agreed that the challenge settled on how to make their version of Baghdad realistic rather than authentic.

Baghdad-born Associate Producer Arij al-Soltan was praised for her insider knowledge and eye that served the production well. She lived in occupied Baghdad 17 years ago. The film’s granular levels of detail testify to this — from interior decor to the soundscape of Baghdad’s streets, melodies of Seta Hagopian blasting from radios to even the local sense of humour.

The dialogue shuttles between Arabic (Iraqi-accented) and English. Arabic is confined to private spaces such as the home, whereas English is spoken publicly — the guiding logic Executive Producer Kate Harwood explained. The cast spoke extensively about which language to unify the series under and after fierce debate arrived at this private-public separation.

The cast agreed that it speaks to the element of hybridity that the international cast represents but also the duality of language that tells the story of exile and occupation for many Iraqis. Dialect coach Abbas Abdulghani was celebrated for helping unify the varieties of Arabic spoken under one vernacular, which is, for the most part, convincing.

Events in the country serve as the primary frame as well as Elliott Colla’s 2014 “Baghdad Central” novel. New characters were inserted and others adapted for the television series. It’s clear even in the initial episode that both those occupied and the occupier were not drawn or vetted by Hollywood standards.

The series blankets itself in the Iraqi point of view and there is little to no fanfare for both US and British occupying forces. The struggle that inhabits many of the characters but Khafaji more visibly is how to choose between “loyalty towards thy country” and “loyalty towards thy family” and the ability to navigate these difficult choices altruistically in a manner that qualifies Khafaji and others a warrior status.

What crowns the show and its imparting message, as Zuaiter said: “It’s not OK to just survive.” It’s a simple but humanising message that animates an alternative portrait of heroism.