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Baghdad Central - First episode review

Baghdad Central

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

LANDMARK Channel 4 thriller Baghdad Central is – on the evidence of its first episode – the type of television we need more of… for so many reasons.

First and foremost, it’s a gripping missing persons thriller set in Baghdad that unfolds from the perspectives of the Iraqi people in the wake of the US liberation of the country and its subsequent occupation. In doing so, it gives voice to a nation too often reduced to stereotypes in more America-fixated post-Iraq dramas.

Yet more crucially, it shines a light on the immense suffering of any people caught in the grip of war, which means it continues to have a wider relevance as the plight of displaced people continues to intensify world-wide.

For, by seeing life from the perspectives of those forced to live under the threat of bombs, dictators or occupying forces, we can gain a greater understanding of the wider implications of war and the moral and social complexity that ensues.

In doing this, it opens up a separate plight: that of women, whose rights according to series director Alice Troughton, are often the first casualties when war breaks out.

Baghdad Central also therefore serves as a strong feminist piece, with some powerful central performances and a female director behind the camera.

The story focuses on Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji (played by Waleed Zuaiter), an experienced cop struggling to care for his two daughters in the wake of his wife’s death [from cancer]. When his eldest daughter goes missing, it’s left to Muhsin and his younger daughter Mrouj (July Namir) to attempt to track her down, which involves forming a risky collaboration with the occupying forces.

As Muhsin digs deeper, he discovers that his daughter was working as a translator for the Americans. But as flashbacks reveal, she was also violated by them, prompting the kidnapping of one key suspect in an attempt to bring his cohorts to justice by outraged wider members of the family.

By the first episode’s end, we already know that things can’t end happily. But there are other powers at play, from British operative Frank Temple (Bertie Carvel), an ex-Scotland Yard officer dedicated to re-establishing an Iraqi-led police presence in Baghdad, and US military police captain John Parodi (Corey Stoll), whose outgoing charisma suggests something more sinister lying beneath.

And so the stage is set for much intrigue and double-cross, not to mention heartbreak and anger.

But where the first hour of Baghdad Central really excelled was in the way it set up a believable Iraq and a host of rich, emotionally compelling characters. Zuaiter, especially, is already a formidable central presence: a driven, dedicated father whose honour determines his every move. He is a loving father and a decent man, which makes his plight all the more root-worthy.

Yet he also has charisma to burn, as evidenced in some of the playful and/or sarcastic exchanges he shared with his colleagues and friends. Zuaiter commands the screen.

But there’s equally notable support from Namir, as his sick daughter, providing emotional strength to her father in spite of the fragility of her physical difficulties (the result of a kidney infection). The bond between them is beautifully realised.

And there’s another formidable woman in university tutor Zubeida Rashid (Clara Khoury), whose fiery independence, yet underlying compassion, is nicely realised too.

These are the type of characters we’re not used to seeing on-screens, representative of cultures that have too often been marginalised or ignored. Yet they make for fiercely compelling characters: warm, charismatic, good-hearted people forced to deal with the aftermath of events that are beyond their control, but which impact every facet of their existence.

Their sense of fear and distrust is sometimes palpable – especially when directed toward their occupiers. While some of what they are forced to endure is anger-inducing. And yet Baghdad Central doesn’t seek to portray them as victims… more survivors who endure.

Finding out whether they will ultimately prevail looks set to be one hell of a gripping journey that absolutely has us hooked.

Read our interview with July Namir