Baghdad Twist (2007) is a short 30 minute documentary by Jewish Iraqi-Canadian filmmaker Joe Balass. Through a conversation between the filmmaker and his mother Valentine Balass, the film highlights the story of Balass’s family in Baghdad and the effects the changing political atmosphere in the region had on their families immigration to Canada, and on the Iraqi Jewish community in general. Baghdad Twist features a beautiful selection of family videos and portraits, archival images and scenes from Baghdad, and an emotionally moving oral history.
The film isn’t politically complex in its presentation, so you will be disappointed if you are expecting a documentary that delves into the multifactorial politics of Iraq and its region, and the influence major players (mainly Zionist organizations) had on the Iraqi Jewish community/diaspora. With that being said, the main three political events that affected the Iraqi Jewish community are introduced superficially to give a temporal sense of the story: The establishment of Israel in 1948, the Abdul Karem Qasim rule and his following fall (1958-1963), and “al Naksa النكسة" the 1967 Six Day War that was described by Valentine as the event that drastically affected the Jewish Iraqi community the most. Baghdad Twist is a personal and emotional memoir of an experience of one family of the multigenerational prosperous Jewish community in the larger Iraqi society. About the little things in their routine lives in Iraq, from the simple process of buying milk to the family picnics on river Tigris. About the effects the political events had on their position in the society, and how these contributed to the shaping of their identities as both Iraqi and Jewish. With everything that have occurred, Valentine never questioned her identity prior to 1967 war, even upon the establishment of the state of Israel:
I was Iraqi and that was it. I was Iraqi, a Jewish Iraqi. They always went together; I am Iraqi, I am Jewish.
In addition to the effect these events had on Jewish Iraqis who lived through them in Baghdad, the film also briefly introduces how they affected those who grew up in the Diaspora, like Joe Balass himself, detached from their national identity. In one of the scenes that touched me personally, as I am confident it will speak to many of us who grew up in the Diaspora, Joe asks his mother if she knew why is he doing this [asking her these questions about Iraq]? She appropriately and wisely replies:
Maybe you want a memory for yourself of Iraq.
That is the reality behind our constant interaction with elements of our homelands and cultures for many of us in the diaspora, we do need a memory of our own to fill in that painful void. The film, purposely or not, does not end with questioning Valentine of how she describes her identity now, leaving the viewer to build his or her own perception of those identities from the stories that were relayed, and the manner and language in which they were delivered.
Watch: The full film is available Free to watch at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) website here
Language: English and Arabic ”Jewish Baghdadi Dialect” (English Sub)