Hanging Gardens (2022)

Directed by Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji

When As’ad, a 12-year-old rubbish picker, adopts an American sex doll from the Baghdad dumps, he crosses into a perilous red zone, finding himself caught in the crossfire between abusive forces of commercialism and fundamentalism in a world where defenders of humanism have lost their power. He embraces the courage it takes to not just survive, but live.

Seattle International Film Festival 2023: Film #31

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Despite reaching for a deeper message, Hanging Gardens frustratingly lacks the emotional weight it should have. Part of this may be due to As'ad himself, whose well-pitched anomie seems to beget a lack of affect and numbness in the film itself, but the film is more seriously affected by a confusing mixture of obviousness and indefiniteness in its message.

For example, the broader import of the doll is both far too on-the-nose and too enigmatic at the same time. Whilst it makes perfect sense—and is almost a cliché—that As'ad would treat the doll as a kind of surrogate mother, the significance of him subsequently pimping the doll out for Iraqi dinars is somewhat less clear… unless it is making a rather inexpensive remark about the crassness of American society. Indeed, in addition to being symbolic of the role of women in modern Iraq, the doll must surely be read as representative of the decadent and morally corrupting West given the doll clearly wasn't a native product of Iraq itself. But what the film is precisely saying with this is unclear as it does with the blood-stained Iraqi flag being used to construct their portable brothel. And Iraq may be culturally, economically and politically frustrated today, but does it immediately follow that is sexually frustrated and bordering perverted as well? Perhaps so, but the film did not provide enough dots for the viewer to join up, and making a connection between violence and sexual repression is hardly a novel observation.

Still, there are some nice touches. Iraq is implied to be a wasteland full of the objects, dreams and ideologies discarded by other countries… which workers on the bottom rung of society must now pick through like starved vultures. And the doll is objectified in a way that somehow rhymes with the way all the broken equipment in the scrapyard has also been reduced to physical objects too. These machines have been disabled, disconnected and deracinated from their original intended purpose: a tank here is no longer a 'tank' in any real sense of the word once it is no longer part of a broader, integrated military machine: it is a rusting husk, and quite literally a toy.

Through the use of the wonder wheel, I got a reminder of another film about a country destroyed physically (and morally) by a war: Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), but another very similar film about a boy working in the junkyard in the American Dream without a conventional family setup is Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop (2007). But in contrast to Hanging Gardens' As'ad, at least Chop Shop's Ale believes that he can get ahead if he works hard enough. The depleted uranium around As'ad seems to have depleted his ambitions as well.