Raindance Film Festival review: Our River… Our Sky

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Director Maysoon Pachachi’s Our River… Our Sky is a deeply affecting snapshot of the violence endured by the Iraqi people in 2006. 

Set in the last week of 2006, the week leading up to the execution of Saddam Hussein, Our River… Our Sky depicts the lives of fictional citizens of Baghdad. Sara (Darina Al Joundi) is a novelist who finds herself unable to write with the violence going on around her. She worries for her young daughter Reema (Zainab Joda) and begins to seriously consider whether she should take a stand against the violence tearing her home apart, or leave a country that’s become inhospitable.

With a background in documentary filmmaking, Maysoon Pachachi (who also serves as co-writer alongside Irada Al-Jubori) creates a host of well-rounded characters that are easy to sympathise with. Then she goes about observing their lives, almost as though making a fictional documentary. The story of Sara and Reema is intertwined with those of her neighbours, including Kamal (Basim Hajar) and his pregnant wife Mona (Labwa Arab), Mona’s mother Nermeen and Sara’s brother Yahya (Amed Hashimi), among others. The movie paints a picture of a close-knit community who constantly cross each other’s paths while trying to deal with their own troubles – and the even more troubling sectarian violence going on in the background.

These people are far from simple. They each have their secrets in their past and/or trouble in their present, and the entire cast does an excellent job of conveying the complexity of their roles. The young Zainab Al-Ghanimi really stands out in the role of Reema, who’s an enthusiastic young child, but also one observing the chaos around her and carrying the heavy burden of trying to process it.

What’s especially affecting about Our River… Our Sky is the contrast between the citizens’ everyday lives and the chaos happening around them. They walk down the street past a pile of dead bodies. Their nonchalance over that speaks volumes about what they’ve had to endure. It’s these small moments that are the most hard hitting. Families go to bed at night to the sounds of gunfire and bombs exploding in the background. They shield themselves from gunfire on a bus journey, then joke about what will happen to their bodies as a lighthearted coping mechanism.

The story that connects these scenes is meandering, flitting between the lives of the various protagonists. At times it feels as though Our River… Our Sky could be slimmed down. With fewer protagonists it wouldn’t sit at the almost-two-hours it currently is (and feels overlong at). However, that would also detract from the varied representations of life in Iraq at this time. It’s a film that covers most experiences – of men, women, young and old – and highlights the internal struggle of the characters. It may be easy for an outsider to think they should leave Iraq, but the movie shows perfectly the ties they have to their homeland and their staunch belief that they shouldn’t abandon it.

Our River… Our Sky ends on an uncertain note. The observation of these people’s lives ends, and we’re left to imagine what tumultuous events lie in their future. For understandable reasons there’s no clear resolution, but it leaves you feeling a simultaneous sense of dread and hope that these people will at some point be safe again in their home city.

[3 stars]

Our River… Our Sky screened at the Raindance Film Festival on 29th October.

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