Al-Janabi’s film ‘Stories of Passers Through’ is a triumph of cinematic vision inspired by personal trauma
Review written by Dr Khalid Ali, Safar writer-in-residence
In ‘Stories of Passers Through‘ Koutaiba Al-Janabi (Iraqi director and cinematographer) weaves a poignant story based on his own memoirs from escaping Baghdad at the age of 17. He fled his homeland in fear of persecution by the oppressive Saddam Hussein regime in the early 90’s. His mother urged him to escape the country to avoid facing a similar fate to his father who was abducted by the police and never returned.
Through a striking visual narrative, Al-Janabi shares with the viewers a candid, heart-breaking and poetic account of leaving his beloved country holding a camera. Before boarding the flight, he wanders around the sad streets of Baghdad revisiting his happy memories in the local cinemas and his childhood playground areas. The protagonist’s voiceover provides an emotional text for a farewell tour observing and commenting on the destruction and chaos his country has suffered, and its decline from a world cultural hub to a deserted place. What follows is a protracted journey in European countries; a journey of despair with Saddam’s political radio propaganda echoing in the background.
Through a collage of black and white stills interspersed with enigmatic vignettes of fragmented stories, a compelling sense of nostalgia is experienced by the audience. Fleeting images of the protagonist’s father, a shattered picture frame, and raindrops on a car window tell a story of a wandering soul in search of shelter and hope. The abstract themes of loneliness and constant displacement are reinforced by several short stories of other travellers escaping harsh weather conditions, or fleeing unseen threats. These meditative stories of nameless spirits challenge the audience to reflect on the futility of journeys endured by human beings in exile.
Covering a 30-year journey of the director’s life, the film originates from a deeply personal experience, but still manages to portray stories of exile and disconnection of Iraqi emigrants in perpetual apprehension of the unknown. The constant fear of persecution by a political regime haunting troubled characters is a prominent theme in Al-Janabi’s films, most notably observed in his award-winning film ‘Leaving Baghdad’. However ‘Stories of Passers Through’ is a more personal film, a labour-of-love from its director.
The experimental style of merging multiple film narratives and aesthetics, alternating voiceover with radio propaganda along with traditional Iraqi music score adds to the visual and auditory impact of the film viewing experience. It follows a ‘Kafkaesque’ style of juxtaposing an ‘absurd narrative taking place in ordinary circumstances’ to tell a universal story of ‘alienation and existential anxiety’.
The European premiere of Stories of Passers Through is screening at the ICA on Friday 14 September @ 6pm. We will be joined by the director for a Q&A after the film. Get your tickets for this film and others in SAFAR: A Literary Journey Through Arab Cinema now.