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A leap too far for the imagination

Is it still possible to make good film about a foreign country? The answer to that question should — in theory — be yes. Filmmakers and writers should surely be ungovernable, and therefore ungoverned by national and cultural borders. They should go anywhere, say anything and be judged purely on the artistic merits of the stories they tell, not on their pre-existing entitlements to tell those stories.

But shows like Baghdad Central, currently streaming on Showmax, make a bad case for that claim. It is a political thriller set in the Iraqi capital soon after the United States invasion in 2003. Its hero is an Iraqi policeman, Muhsin al-Khafaji, played by Waleed Zuaiter, who starts working for the coalition authorities in an effort to find his missing daughter Sawsan (Leem Lubany).

It’s a kak job, unsurprisingly. Muhsin soon finds himself caught in a showdown between a shady British police chief, Frank Temple (Bertie Carvel) and a US military police captain, John Parodi (Corey Stoll). The occupation and the resistance are both gatecrashing the criminal underworld of Baghdad, and the resulting faultlines drive the plot. The cuboid maze of the inner city is rife with mercenaries, bandits, feral children and spies. Women disappear. Families disintegrate.

Muhsin is a solitary and desperate figure in an imploding society — a natural setting for the rich noir tradition that the show adopts. It is all beautifully shot, designed and acted, barring some klunky flashback scenes. And there is nothing intellectually misguided about the show’s impulse toward a humanist, antididactic politics. The British screenwriter, Steven Butchard, and director Alice Troughton try to show us a Baghdad in which intermittent flashes of nobility are scattered throughout the fray — in Islamist insurgents, in the invaders, in former servants of the old regime such as Muhsin.

You get the sense that Butchard and Troughton, drawing on the eponymous novella by the American Middle East scholar Elliott Colla, are making an honest effort to occupy, for want of a better word, the lives of Iraqis in 2003.

The problem is not the creators’ intention but the imaginative distance they intend to leap. It’s hard enough to dramatise one’s own mindfuck of a country, let alone a distant one. (Exhibit A is the long drought of compelling South African TV shows about our politics, ever since a brief flowering of urgent work in the 1990s, including The Line. South Africa’s telenovelas are now in a golden age, but political dramas are dead in the water. They can’t be made without lots of time, money and insulation against state and corporate meddling: all three are rare at both the SABC and MultiChoice.)

But at least when you’re writing TV about your own country, you are speaking to your own people, and sailing on a sea of common reference points. That organic believability serves to build the space for surprise, which is the stuff of any good story. In the absence of that bond, shows such as Baghdad Central are reduced to a kind of school-textbook approach that has made so many worthy political movies — think Cry Freedom — so pedestrian. You have too much expository astroturfing, too much potted history. As a result, every­thing feels written by committee.

To make matters worse, the British creators of Baghdad Central can’t rely on their actors as engines of authenticity. All the Iraqi characters are played by actors from the Arab world or of Arab background, hailing from Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon, Britain and the US. They are all wonderful actors. But none are Iraqis, and you can sense that even before you Google them. 

So we may have to wait for the Iraqis to make the definitive televisual account of the invasion and its endless aftermath. But right now, like us, they are more interested in making soapies and escapist aspirational froth. And you can’t really blame them.

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Carlos Amato
Carlos Amato is an editorial cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Johannesburg, with a focus on sport, culture and politics. He has degrees in literature and animation, used to edit the ‘Sunday Times Lifestyle’ magazine and is the author of ‘Wayde van Niekerk: Road to Glory’ (Jonathan Ball, 2018).

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