Roughly-made but illuminating, the Iraq documentary In My Mother’s Arms is a brief immersion into life in a Baghdad boys’ orphanage. The sibling team of Atea Al Daradji and Mohamed Al Dardji, made the film after being contacted by Husham, a thirty-something man seeking a donation for his orphanage, in which he houses 32 boys in a rented two-bedroom house.
Instead, they filmmakers decided to film him. The orphanage is in Sadr City, the poor embattled Baghdad suburb that has been a centre of violence since the 2003 American invasion. The opening shot sees Husham riding in the passenger seat of a car while a radio broadcast provides the context. The war has created a crisis in orphans in Iraq and the orphanage relies entirely on private donations and volunteer help. Many of the children end up being recruited by criminals or terrorist groups; others are victims of violence and sexual abuse in a handful of state-run institutions.
A moment later, the car pulls over and Husham gets out and walks under an overpass where he meets a couple of boys who say they have been living on the streets for the past three years. He invites them to come live at his home where they can get clean, eat and be with children their own age. Though he can’t help reaching out to more kids, he’s already stretched to his limit. Along with six volunteer care-givers, he feeds and dresses the kids, takes them to school and works the rest of the time trying to raise funds.
Three boys are of particular concern because of the traumas they have suffered: Saif, a 7-year-old Kurdish boy who is a chronic fighter; Mohamed, who excels as a competitive diver but performs poorly in school; and Sallah, a ten-year-old who does not speak or attend school. A doctor brusquely suggests the boys need more of a family atmosphere.
The film follows Husham’s struggles with the system: a cold shoulder from the ministry of social services; a friend with psychological training who says he can’t work for the the orphanage’s meager salary, and a Sunni organization that offers faint hope of financial assistance. To add to the troubles, Husham gets an eviction notice and is forced to seek a new location.
The film’s title comes from a song, and an unabashedly pity-inducing play the boys stage to help raise funds. Scenes occasionally feel staged, though the day-to-day reality of the children’s lives are dramatic enough: Between the usual games, squabbles, TV shows and homework, they live in a world of wall-rocking explosions, power blackouts and constant television reports of nearby bombings and the deaths of other children in their neighbourhood. Helicopters whirl overhead and America troop carriers rumble through the streets.
Occasionally, the camera cuts away to street scenes, where other boys and girls emerge from the roadside at stoplights, approaching cars for food and money. Husham’s struggles to make a handful of boys’ lives tolerable is heroic though it would be misleading to call the film inspiring: The best he can hope for is to exempt a few children from a generational tragedy.
In My Mother’s Arms is showing at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.