A keenly observed cultural portrait laced with humor, romance, religion, suspense, and politics, the ensemble drama Baghdad in My Shadow chronicles a tight-knit group of Iraqi expats and exiles, women and men, who congregate or work at a London café.
For stage-trained actor Waseem Abbas, the film, by Swiss-based Iraqi director Samir, not only offered “an amazing opportunity to kickstart my career,” but a chance to channel his own life into his art.
Abbas plays gay IT specialist Muhannad, who shares his life with lover Sven, but remains closeted around his Arab and Muslim friends and neighbors in the café. Born and raised in small-town Wales to Iraqi parents, Abbas, who identifies as straight, found a clear affinity for the role of Muhannad.
“I drew on that experience of really not quite fitting in,” he says, adding that the film also allowed him to “play a role that can remove these prejudices and veils that people have for each other, and see each other [beyond] just the surface level. We’re all just human beings, and so much more than meets the eye.”
Baghdad in My Shadow, which will have its American premiere on Saturday, Oct. 19, as part of the 24th Arabian Sights Film Festival, illustrates how profoundly diverse, or at odds, a particular community can be. Not all immigrant stories are the same, nor should all refugees and dissidents be judged as one monolithic mass.
For Abbas, the process of relating his character Muhannad to the myriad points of view he encounters at the café — from acceptance and admiration to violent hostility — began when he auditioned for a few other parts in the movie, including a teenaged radicalized follower of Islam named Nasseem. Abbas’ friend Shervin Alenabi gained the role, while Abbas went on to what he calls “the role that I was really destined to play.”
“It was quite a diverse process for me as an actor to really explore the other characters, almost before playing Muhannad — which was a gift to kind of understand even on a deeper level how all these characters are connected,” he says. “There are lots of very human layered stories in this film, and to the characters, [and] the director, Samir, he did an amazing job in giving us an opportunity to have freedom with that.”
Baghdad in My Shadow screens on Saturday, Oct. 19, at 6:15 and on Friday, Oct. 25, at 8 p.m. as part of the Arabian Sights Film Festival. All screenings in the festival take place at the AMC Mazza Gallerie, 5300 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Tickets are $14. Call 202-274-5782 or visit www.filmfestdc.org/arabiansights.