Review originally written for the Doha Film Institute website.
Set in Iraqi Kurdistan during the regime of Saddam Hussein, ‘Bekas’ is the tale of 10-year-old Dana and his younger brother Zana, homeless orphans who watch a ‘Superman’ film for the first time through the window of the local theatre. Affected by the invincible powers of the superhero, they decide to travel to America and bring him back to rescue them from their miserable life. All they have is each other and a donkey they name Michael Jackson.
The inseparable brothers eke out a living by shining shoes, and their only roof at night is the open sky. They rely on the kindness of strangers and are attached to a blind man who substitutes for their lost father. Zana couldn’t resist expressing gratitude in his presence: ‘I like it when you call me “son”’.
Living on the edge in a wartorn country, every day for the pair is a fierce battle. Even though life forces them prematurely into taking responsibility, they remain innocent and playful children who look for hope – and a miraculous exit from their circumstances. Superman becomes the symbol of their salvation. With the little money they earn, they purchase a donkey with a BMW ornament glued to his forehead and ride off, aiming to reach America in a couple of days. Their voyage takes unexpected turns into the underground life of smugglers, financial challenges and minefields.
When powerless and abandoned children are at the core of this kind of plot, we perhaps anticipate a melodramatic narrative and tearful audiences. The actors who play the two protagonists left Kurdistan for the first time in their lives to attend the MENA premiere of the film at DIFF. This info disclosed by the director prior to the screening had already added an emotional substance that will be maintained throughout the film.
Unfortunately, the film attempts to say everything about the situation in Kurdistan during the 90s, but its too-broad focus leads to underdeveloped elements and political reflections of Saddam’s dictatorship. The historical context serves the climax of the adventure, but does not stand out as a strong statement, political or otherwise. The film’s greatest strength is the children’s magnificent performances, which dissolve script gaps and transport us on a roller-coaster ride of bitter sentiments.
The director draws a powerful portrait of these young men that are bound by blood and co-dependence, but above all by genuine love; the way they care about each other against all odds is truly heartfelt. Superman remains the strongest allegory of the impossible hope for a country; a statement reinforced by Zana’s question, ‘Is Superman stronger than Saddam Hussein?’
‘Bekas’ is a passionate journey with a long-lasting effect – the cast were in tears after the screening. Zamand Taha and Sarwar Fazil were greeted like superstars and easily captured the hearts of the full house.