Part history lesson, part family portrait, Samir’s nearly three-hour Iraqi Odyssey is one of the more breathless documentaries in recent memory. Pay attention: Dozens of the Iraq-born, Switzerland-raised director’s family members are mentioned, though only five are zeroed in on.
Spanning several generations, these relatives give firsthand accounts of the last fifty or so years of Iraq’s devastation: the fall of monarchist-overthrowing hero Abd al-Karim Qasim to the violent Baath regime; Saddam Hussein’s 35-year stranglehold; poverty-inducing, U.S.-imposed embargoes following the Gulf War; and, after a lightning-fast taste of freedom, rising crime and dissension during and after the U.S. occupation of the 2000s.
Most of Samir’s family was secular and communist-leaning, which made them automatic targets of the various extremist factions that have controlled Iraq since the mid-1960s. At best, they were forced into jobs beneath their medical and engineering degrees, often for governments they didn’t support; at worst, they were under constant threat of imprisonment, beatings, or deportation. Those who managed to flee to — in the case of those featured here — Lausanne, Auckland, Moscow, London, and Buffalo were in less danger yet just as persecuted or disenfranchised.
Heartrending throughout, Iraqi Odyssey is everything you want in a documentary — informative, involving, and eager to decipher complex, often paradoxical historical conundrums. Everything, that is, except visually interesting. Despite the globetrotting story at its center, there’s precious little sense of place, and Samir resorts to the stalest documentary trappings: talking-head interviews against all-black backdrops; still-photograph collages; spoken English translations over anyone speaking in Arabic. Miraculously, his movie is dense and trenchant enough to distract from these nagging flaws.
Directed by Samir
Opens November 27, IFC Center