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The Liberace of Baghdad (2005)

7.6
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Ratings: 7.6/10 from 99 users  
Reviews: 4 user | 2 critic

Held up in a heavily fortified Baghdad hotel, Iraq's most famous pianist Samir Peter tries to survive the "peace" of post-war Iraq as he waits for his visa that will grant him a new life in America.

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Held up in a heavily fortified Baghdad hotel, Iraq's most famous pianist Samir Peter tries to survive the "peace" of post-war Iraq as he waits for his visa that will grant him a new life in America.

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23 January 2005 (USA)  »

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Bait and switch, BBC style
4 March 2007 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

This film was billed as a documentary about "Iraq's most famous concert pianist" and his tough life in the aftermath of Saddam's downfall. Being a musician, I watched it, assuming it might be a Middle-Eastern version of THE PIANIST, but it's far from it.

Outside of an early mention that Samir made "$10,000 per month" playing the piano, there is no evidence or discussion of his earlier career, or for that matter, that he's much of a pianist at all. Anything we hear him playing is mediocre at best; probably the most interesting item is a weird Iraqi boogie-woogie that pops in a couple of times. The closed captioning mentions "classical music playing" a couple of times, but it's nothing but doodling. Samir's original compositions are lukewarm if not boring. He has a big house, however, so we assume he must have made a decent living. (There's even a big musical gaffe in the editing. About 10 minutes in, Samir is shown playing the piano but the image is reversed. What appears to be his left hand is playing all the high notes, while the right hand is playing the bass.)

So why did the director choose this subject matter? First, Samir was easy to get to, since he worked in the hotel where the director/producer was holed out along with most of the other Western journalists. Second, Samir was a Christian Iraqi, which meant that the director didn't have to deal with the whole "Muslim thing." I think Sean (the director) would have been content with just about ANY non-Muslim Iraqi who could speak English and lived in his hotel. The "fallen musician" angle barely figures into the narrative at all.

Oh, but there has to be another ingredient for the subject to be suitable for the BBC (Bush-Bashing Club). Yes, there has to be plenty of anti-Americanism, and we get it in spades thanks to Samir's relatives. (He himself is looking forward to moving to America, and criticizes his pro-Saddam daughter, but the overall tone as can be expected from the BBC is: "America BAD." One daughter even tries to dissuade him from moving to California, saying that "he will hate it.") Sean of course asks lots of leading questions to milk the anti-Bush sentiment as much as possible.

Samir is a sad figure, to be sure, but not in the least heroic. That's because the director hasn't really shown us where Samir has fallen FROM; just that his life is bad under American occupation. Why didn't Sean take time to find and present more information about Samir's early life? Probably because it would have taken some effort. This wasn't really a film about a musician; it was a long diatribe about how America has ruined Iraq.

There were some touching moments in the picture. But one of the saddest things about the film comes out clearly near the end. Sean and his invasive camera have put Samir and his entire family at risk. Perhaps Samir was too polite to tell Sean to get lost, but it seems very evident that he would prefer to be left alone for his own safety. Yet Sean continues, hoping I'm sure to get some more footage to fan the anti-American flames at the Beeb.

NOTE REGARDING OTHER REVIEWS: Other reviewers have taken issue with my point of view, because I question the very basis of the film, and point out that its true reason for existing is to criticize American war policy. They seem content to ignore the shallow background on the main character, and don't seem to care that the opportunistic filmmaker is putting this man at risk just to get his anti-war film in the can. If feelings rather than facts make a documentary a success, then we need to redefine what a documentary is.


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