"Sari's Mother"
A Race against Time in Iraq

In the documentary film "Sari's Mother," the American documentary film maker James Longley provides a disturbing depiction of the struggle for survival of a young boy, Sari, who has contracted AIDS, and his mother. By Petra Tabeling

​​Iraq, somewhere in the countryside outside Baghdad: ten-year-old Sari lies on the dusty floor, he's exhausted. His mother picks him up by the arms, talks firmly to him. The boy pulls himself together, but he moves with difficulty, his face is distorted with pain. Close up you see that Sari is in a bad way; he seems close to death, his ear is eaten away by illness, his face, arms and hands are covered in rashes.

In his 22-minute documentary "Sari's Mother," Longley follows the daily life of an Iraqi mother. It's a life full of difficulty and deprivation as she tries, amidst the war and the occupation, to save the life of her son, who has contracted AIDS as a result of an infected blood transfusion.

Scarcely any chance of treatment

The family is poor; they live in a clay hut in a farm in the Mahmudiyah region south of Baghdad and live off their meagre income selling milk and butter. Sari's mother tends her son's wounds and comforts him when he screams out loud from the pain and is close to collapse. His eight brothers and sisters look on helplessly. She sings to him, and, in spite of her hard working day, she tries to give him a little extra attention.

She has to be strong: she doesn't have any anti-viral drugs for her boy, and it's a long way to the nearest hospital in Baghdad. But she's prepared to make the trip. Together with Sari, who, as a result of his illness, seems physically like a five-year-old, she sets off, only to find out from the Iraqi authorities that any attempt to help her son with medicine will be useless.

"Iraq in Fragments"

Longley's camera follows the two, unobtrusively, like a silent witness. The film is put together from a huge quantity of material which Longley, a 34-year-old independent film-maker, collected in Iraq between 2002 and 2006 while making another documentary film, "Iraq in Fragments." For that film, for four years, Longley accompanied people in Iraq and won their trust. What has emerged is a moving and fascinating insight into their lives.

The film shows people who are trapped between violence, religious conflict and huge changes in their country. "This film reminds us of the human stories in Iraq which are unfortunately too often neglected," says Longley.

"But Iraq is a country full of people who are absolutely uninterested in the political debates. They have their own lives, their own private problems, and their own individual way of seeing the world and of dealing with it. One day, the USA will withdraw from Iraq, but the problems of the Iraqis will remain. My film is about these people."

Longley has already received several major prizes, for example at the Sundance Festival in the US, for this extraordinary work. A few weeks ago "Iraq in Fragments" was shown at the Berlin Human Rights Film Festival "One World." "Sari's Mother" is his latest work, and it was presented to the European public for the first time at this year's International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.

AIDS is a taboo topic and there's little information

With interruptions, Longley followed Sari and his mother for a total of one year. Filming was sometimes dangerous. "In Spring 2004 I received death threats from the local resistance fighters," says Longley. "They said I shouldn't film where the family was living. So I had to stop there, but I was able to film more scenes with Sari and his mother in the hospital and the ministries in Baghdad."

HIV/AIDS has been a neglected issue among the Iraqi population. For many it's taboo. Local organisations criticise the fact that there is scarcely any public information campaigning about the disease. According to an estimate by the UN organisation UNAIDS, there are currently about a hundred official registered cases, but in reality there are likely to be many more.

"I didn't want to make a film about AIDS in Iraq, since there are not that many cases and it's not such a big problem," says Longley. "I wanted to show the family's helplessness in the face of the catastrophic conditions in the Iraqi health care system."

All the same, "Sari's Mother" is not a film without hope. It shows the strength of the love between a mother and her son, and the courage of an ordinary woman who's prepared to confront the highest authorities in Baghdad with a simple request for help. Longley manages to portray this strength. But Sari's mother knows that she's in a race against time. "People have said to me that all I can do is to use every moment I have," she says in the film. "But it doesn't seem to be enough."

Petra Tabeling

© Qantara 2006

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton


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  • Website "Iraq in Fragments"
  • Website Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival
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