Last night I saw a really wonderful little film on AlJazeera called In My Mother’s Arms. It dealt with the heartbreaking effort of a man in Iraq to safeguard and bring up 32 orphans who he had claimed from the violence with which they were confronted in state-operated orphanages.
This man rented a temporary space for them, crowding all of them into two small bedrooms, and trying to find money to keep his show going, and methods by which the children could transcend the traumas they were suffering from the terrible events they had witnessed.
In face of complaints from his wife, who said he was neglecting the upbringing of his own son, and the indifference of the civic authorities to his work, he kept on against every discouragement, never really winning any successes. One little boy,
Saif, whom he had reclaimed from a life on the streets, would scarcely speak to the other children, but got into fights with them when they taunted him by calling him by his mother’s name. For the rest of the time he just sat there, unresponsive.
Eventually the boss had the bright idea of asking a local theatre group to work with the children on a play that would enable them to express the pain they were all feeling. They began to sing songs about how they longed to be with their mothers, how they hungered to feel her arms around them, and --- although frankly I wondered if such a treatment could possibly work --- eventually these songs brought Saif into the circle.
Hovering over everything, however, was the constant threat that the whole enterprise was going to be evicted by their landlord so that, he said, he could sell the property.Then came news that the United Nations was ready to make a grant to cover their costs, and the search for a place that would take them began. Unfortunately, no one would rent them a space, and so the UN offer lapsed.
This film backed me up against the question of what makes a great documentary. I remember having seen a marvelous film --- this was long before I ever made a film myself --- made by the French Communist director Chris Marker about the battle for Chile. Much of the film was made up of TV clippings that could scarcely be seen, but in spite of these imperfections, the subject of the film was so raw, its treatment so direct and powerful, that I thought the film a masterpiece.
Later, when I went to work in the National Film Board of Canada I was at first extremely impatient with their constant demand for high quality production. To me, the content was more important than the vehicle that carried it. For example, I remember my disgust when on one occasion we were filming a riveting interview in a Cree hunting camp in the far northern wilderness when the sound man ripped off his earphones and said, “It’s no good! I can hear the snow falling on the tent.”
I thought that utterly ridiculous, and only gradually did I begin to change my mind and accept the wisdom of the film technicians who insisted so rigorously on a well-produced product. At that point I began to realize we had a cupboard full of video tapes that had been shot by amateur activists, and that no one would ever want to look at again because of their poor quality.
These thoughts arose as a result of seeing last night’s programme. It was impregnated with the urgency of the dilemma facing the people running this small orphanage against every possible discouragement. One scarcely had time to wonder whether it was well-shot, well-directed, or even well-conceived: the story just existed in its own right, and nothing else mattered but telling it, working towards a successful ending, towards some kind of resolution that would enable the orphanage to continue to exist.
In that I thought whoever made this film --- unfortunately I was unable to find any reference to it on Al Jazeera’s web site this morning --- was spectacularly successful, and I was gripped by his tale from beginning to end.
Although no satisfactory resolution was reached before the end of shooting, a note on the screen said that later they were given a one-year reprieve by some authority of other, which came as a big relief.Just as Saif was emerging from his trauma was certainly not the time to put all these children either into the brutal state-run orphanage system or back on to the streets. The film was a tribute to the resiliency of human decency, manifest in the figure of the man who was trying to carry this off. And the most sobering news came last: that there are 800,000 war orphans in Iraq, and no laws for their protection.