In the light of today’s world – all the changes that are going on in Iraq, and with hostilities toward America for our involvement being the naturally derivative baggage – I fully expected a piece of anti-American propaganda with Zaman: The Man from the Reeds. However, I was pleasantly surprised upon the discovery that director Amer Alwan, regardless of his political feelings, has instead told a simple, sweet story of love and sacrifice.
Spirituality does play a part of Zaman’s character, but keep in mind before any rushes to judgment that Zaman’s family is very poor. He and his wife and their adopted son live in a floating village of huts deep in the marshlands of Iraq. All they have is each other, whatever the land supplies them to live on, and their beliefs. The film implies in its presentation of Zaman’s family how important one’s faith is, especially when it’s the only source of hope. But the film does remain blissfully ambiguous in endorsing any one belief system, and opts instead for telling a general tale of faith and love that can appeal to all audiences, who consider themselves spiritual people. While it lacks depth and complexity, its simple nature is refreshing and recommends at least one viewing.
The story centers on devoted husband Zaman (Sami Kaftan), his loving wife Najma, and their adopted son Yacine. Ultimately, it’s more of a fable than a film, and is reminiscent of the O. Henry classic, “Gift of the Magi,” but by the same course, is far from a retelling. At the beginning, Yacine broods over the loss of his parents during a strain of American-led bombings. Rather than do the obvious and convolute the film into propaganda, Alwan’s direction stays a spiritual path. Yacine hasn’t said his prayers, and Zaman encourages him to, in spite of the obvious questions the young man has going through his mind. Zaman and his wife have never been able to have children, but his guidance glows with seasoned experience in this poignant, emotional scene. Zaman turns Yacine’s attention to the palm tree they both sit under – he notes how the palm tree must endure heat, wind, and rain, yet it stands firm and continues to fulfill its purpose without complaining. He tells Yacine “that’s how we must be.”
Good advice. But advice you pray you’ll never have to follow. Unfortunately for Zaman, he is immediately thrust into a situation where he must practice his own preaching. Najma falls ill with a life-threatening disease. Her only hope of survival is if Zaman can get to a pharmacy that has her prescription. However, it won’t be so easy due to the embargo. Zaman’s journey takes him all the way to the heart of Baghdad in search of the medicine. On the way, his travels educate us on Iraqi life in the last days of the old regime. Thankfully, we are spared any shocking undue violence and instead get a simple glimpse of the stores and the streets and the gathering places with no military in sight. The closest we get is a shot of Saddam on a TV screen, but to its credit, the film doesn’t try to do too much. And that’s its strongest point. You can learn a lot from watching the background, but Zaman and his family take center stage, and they hold onto that spotlight through the film’s all-too-short running time.
I admittedly had difficulty determining the product’s original aspect ratio. No confirmation is available online at this time, and the package fails to mention it. However, it does look like a 1.85:1, or something in that ballpark. Regardless, the image is anamorphic widescreen, and is clean, though the colors often appear too dark, especially flesh tones. Once you get past the flashbulbs and cigarette burns of the black-and-white opening, there are no further contaminants to mar the frame. Film clarity certainly benefits from its digital video source.
The basic mono presentation is sufficient, though quaint. Dialogue levels are good, but hardly needed. The film most likely has less than 25 pages of dialogue in its entire script. Then again, it really doesn’t require much. So much of this film is about Zaman’s lonesome journey through the reed lands of Iraq, and Kaftan is an excellent facial actor. He doesn’t need a lot of words to flex his dramatic muscles. There are some opportunities with background noise during his journey through the swamplands, which are limited by what is provided, but overall the soundtrack suits the needs of the picture, which are few.
The most noteworthy piece of information here is that Alwan had a lot of his footage confiscated by the old regime. It makes one wonder how much better Zaman could have been otherwise. The only drawback of the film is that it’s so simple, it can never achieve greatness. Perhaps some of the blame for this lies in this factoid revealed to us through Alwan’s production notes. A subtle, silent trailer, and a photo gallery, are also included.
Zaman’s words will never lose their importance throughout the course of the film, and though the film has its heartbreaking moments, it also holds fast to its preaching, and is able to leave its viewers with warmth, hope, and the same strength of spirit as its leading man. With an audio/video presentation perfectly suited to the needs of the picture, Zaman: The Man from the Reeds is definitely worth a cheap purchase or full-price rental. Special features share the same brevity as the 78-minute running time, and since the film is well-crafted and never loses sight of its ultimate goal, you’ll be able to plow through it all, and be finished before you’re aware of it.