Iraqi director Mohamed Al-Daradji can remember the exact day he was held hostage by Al Qaeda: Dec 16, 2004. Al-Daradji and his film crew at the time had guns pointed at their heads, seconds away from death. It was during a time when he thought terrorists were only evil men. In the coming years, Al-Daradji realized there was something more sinister behind the madness.
“Usually the victims are women, but a lot of women since 2003 have become suicide bombers,” the director told TheWrap’s Steve Pond at a Q&A on Monday following a screening of his film, “The Journey” at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles. The film is Iraq’s entry into the Oscar foreign film race.
“Is she in control, or are they [Al Qaeda] in control?” is the question Al-Daradji sought to answer in “The Journey,” a film he was inspired to make after being taken hostage.
“At that moment, I was lost,” Al-Daradji said of his state of mind while being held captive. “I used the emotion of that moment for this film.”
“The Journey” is a drama that follows a young female terrorist in Baghdad who has to confront how she ended up with a bomb strapped to her chest ready to kill innocent Iraqis. Lead character Sara (Zahraa Ghandour) begins as a stone-cold Al Qaeda member who encounters a hustler Salam (Ameer Jabarah) at a train station. When Salam tries to make Sara his next victim, she takes advantage of the situation by taking “the sinner” hostage, with the threat of bombing the train station at any second.
But the duo runs into a problem when they find a baby left in a travel bag. Salam wants to take the baby into his care, but Sara has orders to kill. Slowly, Sara begins to question whether killing the innocent for the sake of God is really what she wants to do.
If Al-Daradji found the initial inspiration for “The Journey” in 2004, then in 2008, he was able to put a face to that story. Al-Daradji was shooting his second feature film when he read a newspaper article about a young girl who was minutes away from bombing a police station. The picture used for the article showed the young girl in a moment of regret, with a soldier trying to cut off her vest because she couldn’t go through with the suicide bombing.
It was then when Al-Daradji’s focus became about telling a story about women who were roped into becoming suicide bombers. A few years later he would meet women in an Iraqi prison who were detained because they tried to “cleanse” society by mass killing. One particular girl in front of him with steely eyes stood out, and eventually became the foundation for Sara.
“I saw the humanity in her,” Al-Daradji said.
To build the world around Sara was difficult, Al-Daradji said. Not only would Al-Daradji need to film on location at the Baghdad train station, but he needed to use non-professional actors as well. From the beginning of the writing process to showing the film in Iraqi theaters (the first Iraqi film to do so in decades), the filmmaking process took nearly 5 years. Two of those years involved training Ghandour to become the complex terrorist she would have to be.
“Inside every human, there is an artist,” Al Daradji said.
The shoot took about three months, a process which involved shooting between 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in order to avoid the noise of the actual trains coming to and from the station.
The reception of “The Journey” in Iraq has been complicated, Al-Daradji confessed. While it was shown in seven cities with a mostly positive reception, the audiences have been divided about accepting that their way of life is in question.
“Some people want to start the conversation, some don’t,” he said.