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Before Their Escape: Home Videos and Questions in Exile
By Rebecca Joubin
A Film by Joe Balass
2007, 30 minutes
In his visual memoir “Baghdad Twist,” filmmaker Joe Balass, born in Baghdad in 1966, conducts a poignant interview with his mother, Valentine, about her vivid memories living as a Jew in Baghdad and experiencing all the changes occurring in the 1950’s. His series of questions is aptly set against a harmonic flow of photographs, archival footage and home videos of his family life in Iraq before their escape to Canada in 1970.
This film is remarkable, not just the history it presents, but for the melodious way in which Balass lets the story unfold. The interview is a natural one, a son asking his mother questions about his roots, something familiar to those living in exile. Balass asks his mother, "Do you know why I'm asking you all these questions?" and she answers: "Maybe because you want your own memory of Iraq." In one segment he says that he does not recall much of Iraq, only the crust over his milk. His mother responds by telling him how fresh the milk was there, that the milkman came to the house and milked in front of your eyes.
These sweet memories contrast with the archival footage of problems Jews faced after 1948 and then in the 50’s. Then we see a home video of a 1965 wedding where everyone is dancing and having fun. Balass tells his mother it is odd that she had just told him about all the tension, and that now she's talking about a joyous wedding. He wonders how Jews dealt with all these changes and twists. She said it's just as when someone dies. You mourn for 30 days, and then you move on with your life. But then she says that in 1967 everything changed. His father was imprisoned several times, and she knew they had to escape or else risk dying in Iraq.
While there are times where he questions in Arabic and she answers in Arabic, the majority of the questioning is in English, serving as yet another twist – a stark reminder that for the exiled, individual communication in a new language becomes easier than one's native tongue.
This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)