Shadow in Baghdad: Israeli filmmaker Duki Dror chronicles extinction of Iraq’s Jewish community

Throughout his career Duki Dror has made hard-hitting films about Vietnamese boat people adjusting to life in Israel, criminals serving life sentences in an Illinois prison, a Palestinian-Israeli boxer torn by his divided loyalties and Jewish punk-rocker communists in the streets of Tel Aviv.

Dror’s latest documentary is no less gut-wrenching.

“Shadow in Baghdad” chronicles the disappearance of Iraq’s Jewish community through the eyes of Linda Abdel Aziz Menuhin, an Iraqi-born Israeli journalist who embarks on a quest to find out how and why her father — prominent lawyer Jacob Abdel Aziz — was kidnapped and murdered by Saddam Hussein’s thugs 40 years earlier.

“I’ve made more than 20 films, but this was the hardest of all to make because you’re looking into the story of a person who died, and there are no documents,” said Dror, interviewed several weeks ago over coffee at a Bethesda Starbucks. “You’re trying to build this mystery around the story. All the evidence you have is either part of millions of documents that are spread around the world, or in a place that you cannot reach.”

Film director Duki Dror (Larry Luxner)

The 70-minute documentary recently made its sneak preview debut at the Potomac home of Louis A. Stroller, executive producer of “Scarface” and other Hollywood blockbusters from the 1980s. It was also shown Nov. 21 at the United Nations, in honor of Day of the Refugee — and will likely be screened at the National Archives as well as its debut at the 24th Washington Jewish Film Festival, scheduled for Feb. 27 to Mar. 9, 2014.

Menuhin said reaction to Dror’s film has exceeded all her expectations.

“People were very moved, and they could identify with the story,” she told WJW just before boarding her flight back to Israel. “It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your religion is. In the Middle East, we have many examples of brutal leaders, and after the film, I came to know many people who underwent very bad experiences with the Ba’ath regime in Iraq. This film really gives people an opportunity to talk about these atrocities. There’s a climate of silence. When you don’t talk about it, there’s no room for public debate.”

Prior to 1948, as many as 150,000 Jews lived in Iraq, a country they had inhabited since Biblical times. Most eventually left for Israel, though following the Six-Day War in 1967, things got really nasty for those who stayed behind.

In 1969, the regime rounded up nine Jews and sentenced them to death on charges of spying for Israel and the United States. They were hanged in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square; their executions a public spectacle attended by hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

That’s when Linda Abdel Aziz, then 17, decided to escape.

Linda and friends from the university in Baghdad in 1968. (Courtesy Photo)
Linda’s friends from the university in Baghdad in 1968. (Courtesy Photo)

The rest of her family eventually joined her in Israel, but her lawyer father stayed in Baghdad, where he was instrumental in winning the freedom of at least 200 other Jews who had been unjustly imprisoned. Shortly after, Jacob Abdel Aziz — while doing last-minute shopping the day before Yom Kippur — was kidnapped and never seen again.

It’s a story Dror, 50 and the child of Iraqi Jewish refugees, can easily relate to. His own father tried to flee Iraq in 1949, but was caught and sentenced to five years in jail. The family (whose original name was Darwish) eventually emigrated to Israel.

“About 10 years ago, I made a movie called ‘Fantasia’ about my family, my father’s story in Iraq and me as an Israeli who is trying to understand the story and how I tried to push it away from me,” Dror said. “But suddenly I started to dig. My father had painful memories and didn’t want to speak about Iraq. That just made me more curious.”

These days, there aren’t enough Jews in Iraq to make a minyan.

The movie’s release comes against the backdrop of a controversy pitting the United States against Iraq, the country it helped liberate from Saddam Hussein in 2003

On Nov. 27, the State Department announced that it would return to the Iraqi government a valuable collection of Jewish books and manuscripts found that year by U.S. soldiers raiding Saddam’s flooded military headquarters. The documents, some of which date to the 16th century, have been restored to the tune of $3 million and are now on display at the National Archives.

Baghdad 1970. In the center stands Rabbi of Baghdad and Jacob Abdel Aziz. (Courtesy Photo)
Baghdad 1970. In the center stands Rabbi of Baghdad and Jacob Abdel Aziz. (Courtesy Photo)

But a bilateral agreement to send the collection back to Baghdad next summer has infuriated Jewish groups, who argue it should stay right where it is — in Washington.

“There’s so much ignorance about Jews in the Arab world,” said Dror, who studied filmmaking at both UCLA and Columbia College Chicago. “There’s also a lot of ignorance in Israel about the Arab world, but what is really dangerous now is that the old generations of Arabs who knew Jews are dying out. You have a population [in Iraq] that doesn’t acknowledge anything about their Jewish heritage.”

Dror said his documentary cost about $300,000 to produce. About $60,000 of that came from Gesher and Avi Chai — two New York-based foundations — while donations from the United States, France, Israel and elsewhere paid for the remainder.

“Shadow in Baghdad” was filmed in both Israel and Jordan. The documentary opens with Menuhin, who freelances for Arabic-language TV networks and writes an independent blog in Arabic — traveling by car and crossing the Allenby Bridge to Jordan in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to vote in Iraq’s 2010 presidential elections. She brings her tattered University of Baghdad student ID along with an Israeli passport to prove her identity.

For that scene, Dror teamed up with a Jordanian producer, telling him without elaborating too much that the Israelis were only coming for a visit.

Duki and Linda. (Courtesy photo)
Duki and Linda. (Courtesy photo)

“They held us at the voting station for seven or eight hours,” he said. “It was just a school, but the school became Iraqi territory [for the election]. Finally, some Jordanian secret service guys snatched us out of there. She wanted to make a statement for herself, not to provoke.”

Menuhin said the whole point was to show how Iraqi she is.

“I would still like to be part of the democratic process in Iraq,” she explained in English, though most of the dialogue in the movie is in Arabic and Hebrew, with English subtitles. “I have two identities, Iraqi and Israeli. You cannot deny one identity at the expense of the other.”

Crucial to Menuhin’s story is the advent of the Internet, which made it possible for an inquisitive Iraqi journalist identified only as “Mohammed” to contact the Israeli Jewish woman via Skype after having read about her efforts to vote in the Iraqi election. Over the course of several months, the two develop a relationship built on trust, and Mohammed — whose face is blurred in the movie — eventually helps track down documents and people who can lead her to the truth.

shadow_in_baghdad_posters-eng“We’re talking about reconciliation, about a Middle East where people can exchange ideas and talk,” said Dror. “Suddenly the social networks enable all these possibilities of crossing borders without actually crossing the border. But really do you have anything in common? That’s what I wanted to see. Surprisingly, I found Iraqis who are not only not afraid to speak with me as an Israeli and a Jew, but who also feel that the Jews were a major part of the Mesopotamian heritage, and they want the Jews back.”

Even so, Dror decided not to fully identify Menuhin’s friend in Baghdad.

“The subject of Jews is kind of controversial [in Iraq], and it’s not only him but other intellectuals and journalists who feel threatened by this,” he said. “You don’t know who might hurt you.”

Also interviewed in the documentary is Mark Hambley, former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Qatar. He spoke at a London ceremony sponsored by the New Century Foundation award for outstanding achievements for peace in the Middle East.

Menuhin, accepting a prize at that ceremony, tells the audience, “I always say that I left Iraq 40 years ago, but Iraq never left me.”

Dror said the Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya networks should air his documentary, though he doesn’t expect it to be broadcast on Iraqi TV because it’s an Israeli production.

“I don’t have to go there. All I need is for the film to go there, for it to be shown on Iraqi TV, in Qatar, in all the Arab countries,” he said. “I know from previous films about the heritage of Jews that there’s a huge audience. If there were no media censorship of this kind of content, it would be very strongly received.”

Meanwhile, Dror must still come up with thousands of dollars to get “Shadow in Baghdad” widely distributed throughout the United States — a real challenge, he says, because most American Jews are Ashkenazi, not Sephardic.

“Raising money for a film about Jews from the Arab world is much more difficult than raising money for a film about European Jews,” he remarked. “It’s nice to have a movie, but you need to push the film strongly to get it seen by many people. We would like to run it in film festivals like Sundance and Santa Barbara, then do screenings at Jewish community centers and synagogues in Montreal, New York and elsewhere. There are lots of invitations waiting.”

Asked what’s next on his to-do list, Dror said he’s working on a documentary about Naji Ibrahim — the first and only Jewish pilot in the Iraqi Air Force.

As for Menuhin, “I’m in the process of starting up a new blog that would let people from throughout the Middle East express themselves.” And then? “You might be shocked,” she said, “but I see myself one day as the Israeli ambassador to Iraq.”