Published in Ahram Online
Screened within the International Competition of the 35th Cairo International Film Festival (29 November – 6 December), Death Triangle is the first feature film by Iraqi filmmaker Adnan Osman. It touches on human and social elements while looking into the dream of millions of Iraqis trying to escape their country to the Paradise past the Iraqi border.
The film was screened twice on Monday 3 December, at 10am and at 3.30pm. The morning screening was followed by a discussion. The unfortunate element of the screening – in fact a problem very widespread during this year’s festival – is an alarming lack of audience resulting from serious organisational pitfalls. When the film began at 10am, there was only one person in a hall with 350 seats – which turned it into a very “private viewing” – a number that had grown to eight by the time the film ended. The moderation of the discussion that followed lacked proper English translation, paralysing communication with attendees depending on English language.
Death Triangle tells the story of 70-year-old Uncle Zuheir (Zuher Abdulmasih), the manager of a Baghdad TV and radio station whose life takes a completely unexpected turn after his wife and daughter are killed during the war. He lives in an old abandoned bus, next to the tunnel which, to many people, is a passage to Paradise. Every night he tries to save the desperate escapers from the beast hidden in the tunnel, shattering their dream and taking away their lives. The beast that attacks the dreamers physically is in fact a metaphor for all the life-threatening occurrences that Iraqis experience when trying to flee the country through such tunnels dug in the mountains or underground.
The movie is set prior to the Iraqi War that began in 2003, a fact indicated only at the end of the movie when the viewer catches a glimpse of Saddam Hussein’s poster. Taking into account the fact that the scenario concentrates on the human side of the oppressed and their escape through a tunnel, at first it is hard for the viewer to position the movie historically. Saddam’s portrait forces the viewer to readjust their thinking, from more contemporary times to a depiction of events least 12 years ago. What adds to the confusion is the film’s English title Death Triangle. The term “Triangle of Death”, in reference to Iraq, is a name given to the operations of the US allied forces south of Baghdad between 2004 and 2007, which were marked by excessive violence. The movie, in fact, goes back to the situation of Iraqi Kurds under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
On the other hand, as indicated by a few audience members during the discussion, director and screenwriter Adnan Osman’s choice of historical moment prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein raises questions about the reasons behind this topic being brought to light today.
Osman defended the title explaining that Death Triangle in fact points to decades of atrocities in which the Iraqi people have been trapped, and summed up in a variety of conflicts and wars — having always two or three elements of a triangle at base: the Kurds, Iraq, Iran.
During Saddam’s reign and even more during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), many Kurds were persecuted, jailed and killed. The end of the war was marked by the Kurdish Genocide known as Operation Anfal, during which the army devastated the population of Iraqi Kurdistan. According to Human Rights Watch, during the Anfal campaign, the Iraqi government “wiped out around 90 percent of Kurdish villages in the targeted areas” and massacred “50,000 to 100,000 non-combatant civilians including women and children”. Osman mentioned that a total of one million Kurds were persecuted and/or killed by Saddam during all his years in power and every Kurdish family has at least one martyr.
While clarifying the choice of historical positioning of the movie, Osman went on to say, “The Iraqi people will never forget the massacre of the Kurds. This movie is an important reminder of the atrocities that we went through. It is also a red light pointing to all dictators. As such it is a message to the world and to many Arab countries.”
The movie looks into the human side of a people devastated by dictatorship and desperate to escape their destinies. Zuher Abdulmasih, a remarkable Iraqi actor who played the protagonist’s role of Uncle Zuheir in Osman’s movie gives a touching performance. Zuheir, a courageous man, lost his wife and daughter, gives up his “regular life” and sacrifices to rescue the others entering the tunnel. Abdulmasih presented a wide range of emotions, though it was the scenario that limited a full presentation of capabilities of this actor who can definitely show more.
Osman chains the protagonist – as well as other secondary characters – in a series of cliché sentences, media-like statements rather than human dialogues beyond which the audience grasps the deeper meaning. Osman has 12 short movies under his belt, including documentaries; a few have received prestigious Iraqi and international awards. Death Triangle would have been more powerful had it made more room for indirect dialogues or messages built by the screenwriter.
But aside from the pitfalls of the screenplay, apart from strong human values, Death Triangle is a rare opportunity to grow familiar with Kurdish cinema; the movie is produced by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Osman explained the situation of cinema production in the region: “The birth of the Kurdish cinema goes back to 2000. Today Kurdistan makes around seven to eight feature films a year in addition to many short and documentary movies. The Ministry of Culture and Youth in Iraqi Kurdistan gives a yearly budget of $200,000 to the film sector. There are a few firms trying to produce films but they have no budget and depend on different kinds of support. There are three locations for shooting.” Osman went on to stress that we always need to separate between Iraqi and Kurdish cinema.
According to sources, Kurdish cinema production lacks professional structure; it does not have an effective distribution system. Nevertheless many emerging filmmakers are trying to pool resources to help the sector grow. On the other hand, there are many film festivals focusing on Kurdish cinema such as London Kurdish Film Festival, Montreal Kurdish Film Festival, Köln First Kurdish Film Festival, etc.
Death Triangle was screened under the Iraqi flag and as such was the only Iraqi film in this year’s festival.