In an intimate new documentary, the untold story of Iraqi Jews brings a unique perspective to Baghdad, shedding its contemporary war torn history to reveal the little-known but fascinating backstory of the Jews that lived there for 2,600 years until only a generation ago.
On the 100th anniversary of the British invasion in 1917, Remember Baghdad tells the untold story of Iraq from a completely new perspective, through the eyes of the Jews who lived there for 2,600 years until only a generation ago. Remember Baghdad is history made personal, revealing the little-known but fascinating backstory to a country that is rarely out of the news headlines today.
Premiering on November 16 in the UK, Remember Baghdad will screen at the International Jewish Film Festival (UKIJFF) followed by a nationwide UK release – with at least seven screenings including the Curzon Soho, London and Manchester HOME. These will be followed by an international festival tour, starting with the prestigious Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival in December.
With vivid home movies and archive news footage, eight characters tell their remarkable stories. In 1917, a third of the citizens of Baghdad are Jewish. The descendants of the scholars who wrote the Babylonian Talmud are westernising fast. In 1947, the first Miss Baghdad is Jewish and Jews are parliamentarians.
The lives of the film’s contributors are played out as the impact of the monarchy imposed by the British, Nazi influence and the creation of Israel unfold. A mass exodus takes place, though many thousands stay behind, loyal to the country they love. Finally, after 1967, Saddam Hussein mobilises a mass movement against them and they must flee.
Filmmaker Fiona Murphy’s intimate interviews, personal viewpoint, extensive personal and news archive as well as footage from Iraq today, combine to deliver a compelling story many will know little or nothing about. Murphy trained at the BBC and worked at Granada and Third Eye before becoming a journalist. After reviewing films for Paper Magazine in New York, she freelanced in London, writing on design for The Guardian and The Financial Times amongst others. She returned to filmmaking and her film The Other Irish Travellers ran as a Storyville on BBC4.
This true story is very close to her heart. “The lives of my parents’ families closed down as the British Empire shattered: my father’s community was thrown out of Ireland and my mother’s fled Jamaica. I grew up in London, conscious that people suffer for the crimes of generations long gone.
“So when I was between films and was offered a job cataloguing an extraordinary archive of early home movies belonging to an Iraqi-Jewish family, I responded vividly to the news that the Jews of Iraq did well under the British, and paid for it. They had committed no crimes, and unlike mine, nor had their community.”
Remember Baghdad focuses on five families from the Jewish community who look back on a scarcely imaginable time in Baghdad – Iraq was booming, it was pleasure-seeking, and there was inter-communal trust. Iraq was once one of the most diverse places on earth, more tolerant of its minorities than any European nation.
Today, after decades of war and instability, Iraq is a very different place. In spite of the danger, North Londoner Edwin Shuker decides to return to the country he loved. The film follows him back to Baghdad. He wants to buy a house in Iraq so that he can say “the Jews have not all gone”. He wants to plant a seed of hope for the future.
“Baghdad was the centre of the Jewish world for over 1,500 years. My ancestors wrote the Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud. They invested so much in Iraq … I can’t live with the fact that my grandfather is buried here and that we’ve abandoned him and we are just saying Goodbye Baghdad… Goodbye everything, and we no longer even look back,” said Shuker.
Murphy adds, “At first I just wanted to convey the pain of losing your home. It seemed important, now, right now, to push back at the narrowness of our news, dominated by discussion of economic migrants, desperate refugees and the difficulties of integrating immigrants. The older stories were laments about the pain of exile: “It’s a Long Long Way to Tipperary”, and “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept”. I wanted to show that that migrants travel with heavy hearts, give them a voice, and bring back the world that was lost. I knew this must be my next film.
“Bit by bit, I was also drawn into the turbulent history of Iraq before Saddam Hussein, infinitely more complex than I knew, and for which Britain and the US bear much of the responsibility. I learned that the Jews once made up a third of the population of Baghdad. They spoke to me of idyllic times, picnics by the Tigris, fancy dress parties and beauty pageants. It was difficult at first to reconcile it all with the brutal place Iraq has become today. I wanted to know, step by step, how this happened.”
One family who acquires Murphy’s focus is the Dangoor’s. At the start of this story, the 2,600 year-old Jewish community is flourishing, with ministers in government, officers in the army and invitations to the best parties. Renée Dangoor is crowned “Miss Baghdad” in the country’s first beauty contest in 1947. She and her husband are set to become part of Baghdad’s elite. But after the creation of Israel in 1948 everything changes.
Within a few years of Renée’s triumph, the atmosphere is ugly. Family by family, the Jewish community observe events on the streets and the politics of the Middle East, constantly wondering whether to leave. Families make different political judgements and different decisions, but by 1951, 120,000 Iraqi Jews abandon their homes to fly six-hundred miles West to Tel Aviv.
Despite these dramatic departure, seven thousand Jews remain. In a seemingly golden period of royal patronage, society balls and picnics on the banks of the Tigris, life in Baghdad was once again, deceptively secure.
“Their story opens onto everything that happened in the Middle East between the First World War and the Cold War fifty years later,” says Murphy. “A mosaic emerged telling the story of a nation under intense pressure, descending into darkness. I was surprised by the light moments and unexpected paradoxes: the Arab friends and business partners, the ambivalence about Israel, the genuine affection for home. “Jews, Muslims, Christians, we were all Iraqis” they said.”
Using a unique archive of powerful home movies and photos, alongside public source news footage, we meet the Dallals who import tyres, the Khalastchis who sell cars, the Shamashes who are property developers and politicians, and the Dangoors who import Coca-Cola – all working in partnerships with Muslims. In a busy, nation-building period, it seemed to them that Babylon would remain a centre of Jewish life. Once it was the pre-eminent centre of learning in the Jewish world – it was hard to imagine it could come to an end. They paid the price of their overconfidence.
Continues Murphy: “I pushed on, and ended up going to Iraq at the peak of the ISIS insurgency with a man determined to re-kindle the Jewish presence by returning to buy a home there himself.
Iraq rid itself of its corrupt monarchy but fell victim to a sequence of populist tyrants who built their power using ethnic hatred. The Jews, after thousands of years, were cast as “foreigners”. Pawns, they were on the wrong side of a political story.
“The families I filmed were ordinary, but lived through an epic in their kitchens and living rooms, making life and death decisions before school in the morning. I hope people who watch the film will identify with them and recognise ethnic hatred for what it is, and see that is still with us.”
The arc of their lives goes from unbounded optimism to terrified escape. We follow our characters as their lives expand under the puppet regime installed by the British, as they survive a Nazi-inspired coup in 1941, the creation of Israel in 1948, the massacre of the Royal family in 1958 and the arrival of the Ba’ath Party in 1963 and the catastrophic consequences of the Six Day War with Israel in 1967. Through wars and coups Iraq distorts, under internal and international pressure. The story of Baghdad’s last Jews – from gaiety to revolutions, public hangings and murder – opens out onto the wider story of Iraq.
The film has already won plenty of praise. Ian Black, author and veteran middle east correspondence for the The Guardian called it a “window on a lost world”. He went on to say Remembering Baghdad represented “impressive evidence of human determination to keep faith with the past.” James Lefanu, columnist for The Daily Telegraph, said it was “a great story, brilliantly told”. He added: “Informative, passionate and with an extraordinary cast of characters. It deserves to win lots of prizes.” Rachel Johnson, author and columnist for The Mail said Murphy, a naturally gifted filmmaker, brought to life a “story you never dreamed existed”.