Based loosely on a real-life incident, The Journey tells a spare and streamlined story that exists at the intersection of the political and the personal. Co-written and directed by Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji, who lost a close cousin and many other family members in the protracted and bloody Iran-Iraq War, the movie is a psychological drama that examines the issues of extremism and sectarian violence. But it is also remarkable on several other fronts – an international co-production amongst Iraq, the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom, and, most importantly, the first domestic film to screen all across the country in Iraqi theaters in nearly 25 years.
Iraqi cinema used to be highly regarded in the region. But years of increasingly restrictive autocratic rule – followed by the violence, insecurity and ethnic factionalism that arose in the wake of the 2003 American invasion – took their toll. While ordinary Iraqis still screened Middle Eastern films and even Hollywood movies, production ceased to exist. The Journey, then, represents the reopening of an important artistic spigot.
Set in Baghdad in 2006, during the aftermath of the aforementioned invasion, the film centers on Sara (Zahraa Ghandour), a would-be suicide bomber who enters the city’s train station during its re-opening ceremony. As she braces to commit an unthinkable act, her plans are altered by an awkward and unwanted encounter with a flirtatious, self-assured salesman, Salam (Ameer Ali Jabarah). As he appeals to her humanity and tries to sway her decision, Sara reflects back on her lost innocence. But do these thoughts represent a second chance, or merely a steely admission of guilt?
With the exception of Jabarah, who had previously worked with Al-Daradji on his 2013 movie In the Sands of Babylon, The Journey does not feature professional actors, but instead a cast of neophytes. This gives the movie an edginess and organic quality, which Al-Daradji and co-screenwriter Isabelle Stead incorporate into their plotting, and further abet with handheld camerawork.
The Iraqi Independent Film Center, a collective run by a group of idealistic young filmmakers, launched an ambitious campaign to help The Journey reach one million domestic viewers – something even its director admits is probably not possible in his country of 37 million. “It’s a bit unlikely, but we will not abandon our efforts,” said Al-Daradji in a March 2018 interview with Al-Monitor. “We’re trying to fight terrorism through ideas, and to get rid of extremist and fanatical behaviors and concepts through dialogue, understanding and rapprochement between people.”
The fact that The Journey screened theatrically in 12 other Arab countries will help push Al-Daradji and his colleagues closer to their goal. But it is as much the movie’s reintroduction of the thought, and indeed reality, of contemporary Iraqi cinematic storytelling to other open-minded viewers around the world as anything else, which reminds one of an old axiom: that it’s the journey which frequently teaches one more than the destination.