‘The Journey’ leaves viewers guessing

BEIRUT: One of the gifts of fiction is that the story must end. Whether the plot concludes happily or not matters less than how the end is reached.

If you happen to be reading or viewing in unremittingly precarious times now, say the need for closure becomes even more important.

For writers committed to retailing stories from the precarious times their viewers are living, it’s hard to devise credible endings that don’t simply reiterate news headlines.

It can be a tightrope walk between veracity (a downer for commercial audiences) and optimism (hard to reconcile with a story’s realistic premises).

“The Journey,” by Iraqi writer-director Mohamed al-Daradji, is set at the end of December 2006 the first day of Eid al-Adha three years into the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

It tells the story of Sara (Zahraa Ghandour), a stern-faced young woman on a mission.

Daradji’s sixth feature-length film premiered at the Toronto film festival in 2017 and is presently enjoying a brief run at Beirut’s Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. It’s a compact film, running less than 90 minutes. It’s also compact in its location, shot entirely in the environs of Baghdad’s train station.

After the obligatory drone shot looking down on a stretch of Baghdad’s rail line and adjacent buildings the camera shows Sara marching toward the train station with a hijab wrapped tightly about her head. As children’s playful voices seep into the sound design, she removes her scarf.

Upon entering the crowded station, the most conspicuous figure is Salam (Ameer Ali Jabarah), an aggressive salesman who, oblivious to Sara’s hostile demeanor, tries to come on to her.

She quickly has him pinned against a wall and seems ready to gut him, were she only holding a knife.

Instead, her hand’s clenching the detonator for her suicide vest.

Not wanting to waste her bomb on this greasy pitchman, but unwilling to blow her cover, she takes the now-compliant Salam hostage inside the train station.

There, the camera pans over the cross section of society that’s usually found in locations like these.

There’s a sweet little girl selling flowers and a hapless shoe-shine boy flogging cigarettes.

A unit of gormless U.S. troops patrol the station. A mother chastises a reluctant-looking young bride to put on her shoes. A clarinet player, one of a cluster of musicians on site, is revealed to have lost 22 years of his life in prison.

Nearby, his still-unmarried lover simmers with resentment for having waited for him all these years. There is also a woman, dressed not unlike Sara except she’s kept her hijab and carries a bag, whose contents are vital to shaping the story.

The narrative function of these figures is not unlike that of the spirits of Christmas past, present and future in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” lighting the way to Sara’s redemption. Since virtually nothing is known about how she found her way to a suicide vest, however, the moral role of these figures gives her story an oddly fairy-tale quality.

The plot threads connecting Sara and Salam to each other and to the minor characters and their stories are too tenuous to play a credible role in Sara’s putative change of heart. It’s as though this woman, who is so committed to cleaning Iraq with her own death, has never encountered the “normal” Iraqis whose lived experiences these characters represent.

Daradji and his co-writer Isabelle Stead are evidently aware of all this as “The Journey” doesn’t end with Sara’s salvation. Instead she’s saved from an implausible end by a bit of narrative sleight-of-hand, yanking the story back to realism, and forming a much more ambivalent close.

This sort of terminal indecisiveness seems to have become a minor trend in Arab cinema, most obviously in recent features from Syrian and Palestinian filmmakers. In its engineering, however, Daradji and Stead’s ending is indebted to a much older work Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ,” 1988, penned by Paul Schrader from the novel of Nikos Kazantzakis.

“The Journey” is having an exclusive run at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 08, 2018, on page 16.




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