Hanging Gardens (Janain mualaqa) is the feature-length debut of writer-director Ahmed Yassin Aldaradji. The drama, set in Baghdad’s dumps, was co-written with Margaret Glover. These trash dunes, locally referred to as the hanging gardens, play home to the poverty-stricken who eke out a living sifting through the rubbish to sell to others.
Such is the life of 12-year-old As’ad (Hussain Muhammad Jalil) and his 20-something brother Taha (Wissam Diyaa). As the two dredge the piles upon piles of refuse, they locate anything that can be reused and take it to a less-than-reputable businessman. One day, instead of finding the usual bits of magazines or jewelry, As’ad comes across a fair-skinned, blonde sex doll. Taha hates it, but his sibling is entranced. Responding to an ultimatum, As’ad converts an abandoned tank into his new home, where he proceeds to take care of the sex doll by cleaning it.
Then As’ad, with prodding from a friend, sets up a brothel to make money. In short order, there’s a line of men paying for time with the sex doll, which the young man treats with much reverence. However, he lives in a country known for strict moral stances, which jeopardizes this makeshift business as soon as it begins. Why is As’ad so drawn to the doll? What will having it do to him and his family?
“…As’ad comes across a fair-skinned, blonde sex doll.”
Hanging Gardens is filled with stunning imagery juxtaposing the filth of the leads’ lives and the beauty of their hometown. Duraid Munajim’s camera gracefully moves through the mountains of garbage to highlight what’s special about these people and this place. The underbelly of repression has rarely looked so appealing, even though trash is a major part of the film. When As’ad begs a bystander to help him pick up and take away the doll, the lighting perfectly captures the mood as the camera zooms in to show how the main character’s world is forever changing.
Jalil showcases a wide range of emotions throughout the 97-minute runtime (note: all sources, including IMDb and the submission page, list this at 117 minutes. However, those final 20 minutes are just a black screen, not even credits, just a blank, black screen). The tender way he bathes the doll highlights a sweet disposition that makes As’ad an excellent lead. Diyaa’s desperation is evident from his first scene to his last.
Suad Bushnaq’s score is excellent. When the squeeze becomes too tight, the music plays into the confusion and frustration As’ad feels. By the time Hanging Gardens reaches its inevitable and tragic conclusion, the viewers begin to believe the sex doll is real. That is proof the film hits every intended mark.
"…hits every intended mark."