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REVIEW: Baghdad Central (S1 E6/6)

There’s no doubt about it in my eyes: Baghdad Central has been one of the crime dramas of the year so far.

It’s been a hugely watchable and intense combination of familiar police procedural and a quickly-developing war drama, where loyalties have been stretched and survival in tough, lawless conditions has been paramount.

In this last episode, al-Khafaji had a lot on his plate – he had to find his daughter Sawsan, spirit his other daughter Mrouj out of the Green Zone hospital, and reunite them to take them across the border. He also had to navigate Frank Temple’s nexus of corruption and escape the hitman who had been hired to take him out.

A lot to get through.

Throughout this final episode, there were no real surprises – whether al-Khafaji and his family survived this perilous path to some sort of freedom was the big, overriding question that lingered throughout. What there were though were some brilliantly tense and staged scenes.

Al-Nasir and al-Khafaji had their confrontation very early in the episode. I’ve seen so many pieces like this – most recently the movie Queen & Slim, where the doomed, on-the-run lovers fail to make their escape after being shot by police on the runway with the plane waiting for them, and indeed Road To Perdition etc – that I half expected al-Khafaji’s nemesis to pop up right at the end and do something unspeakable.

But they had their showdown early, both waving guns at each other until al-Khafaji rightly pointed out that they were both to blame, both had skeletons in their closet and that war makes people do things they normally wouldn’t.

There was a great big shoot-out at Rashid’s place, too, where the exchange of Temple’s money for Sawsan took place. As Evans relished the fight, Temple did not, scuttling back into his car like the coward he was. It was another tense, thrilling scene, and by the end of it, the al-Khafaji family was reunited, also thanks to Temple’s secretary Miss Ford, who sneaked out Mrouj from the hospital.

In many ways, the biggest threat to the family’s future was Sawsan herself. She had always been against leaving Iraq and abandoning her cause, and it was in the balance as to whether she would agree to leave or not.

In the end, she did. As did Mrouj.

But the biggest surprise was the al-Khafaji did not. Even though he was a marked man, and even though he had rescued his family and reunited them (with a little help from Parodi) he turned around and walked straight back into town, leaving Rashid to take his daughters across the border.

Why? Perhaps it was the guilt he carried at failing his son, perhaps he felt his country needed him.

One of the most affecting scenes took place earlier in the episode took place between al-Khafaji and his brother and wife (I think it was his brother), who he knew had given up his son to the old regime. As she began to break down while explaining that she had said too much about his son in the hairdressers and that someone who had overheard reported him, al-Khafaji granted forgiveness.

It highlighted the absurdity of war, the horridness of it all and how quickly humans can turn on each other at any given moment.

It’s been a really good series. On the surface, Baghdad Central has presented us with plenty of familiar elements that we could sink our teeth into with ease – a weather-worn male detective lead, a search narrative, and plenty of police procedural. But one of the things that set this series apart was not only the strong sense of place but also a culture and a life that we haven’t often seen – actually never seen – in crime drama: that of Iraq.

And, of course, we can talk about war, and the effect it has on people: the paranoia, the suspicion and torn loyalties, as well as the will to survive and the guilt people carry for doing things in just in order to survive. When you’re under that kind of day-to-day pressure – pressure of your culture and way of life being under daily threat, occupiers walking around with machine guns (as well as your neighbours) and driving tanks around the streets that once housed bustling markets and people drinking tea and playing board games, it must be incredibly tense and disorientating.

And yet people get used to it, in a way. They carry on, albeit in an adapted reality. I have friends who lived in Belfast during The Troubles, and they’ve always told me that when the worst of it was happening – soldiers with guns on every street corner, violence erupting on the streets at any given moment – people just got used to it. It’s a strange thing to say, but you got that impression with the people of Baghdad.

It reminded me of the late, great Phillip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books where a likeable, but flawed male lead did what he had to do in a lawless, post-war Berlin. Here, al-Khafaji had that same likeability, those same weaknesses and that same life experience that made him such a watchable character.

To make this really work, however, a strong ensemble cast was needed and in the likes of Waleed Zuaiter, Bertie Carvell, Corey Stoll, and Leem Lubany we got it. They were all on top form.

Add in a fantastic, mournful theme tune, some poignant, poetic imagery and I really hope Baghdad Central returns. From what I can gather not many people have been watching it, which is a great shame. It really feels like it should be primetime on the BBC or even ITV – it has that look and feel about it – and it deserves to come back.

It has much more to say and could run and run. And, in al-Khafaji, we have a fantastic new TV detective.

Paul Hirons







REVIEW: Baghdad Central (S1 E5/6)

The penultimate episode of this fascinated noir story (and that’s not damning it with faint praise), really upped the ante tonight.

Episode five was the best episode of the series – with the pressure now well and truly being felt by our hero al-Khafaji, to find his daughter, stakes were raised, the pace was quickened and there were genuinely thrilling situations to be enjoyed.

At the end of episode four, Temple’s unpleasant henchman, Evans, had done away with poor Zahra, while Sawsan, al-Khafaji’s, daughter had sworn revenge against the constantly-agitated, constantly-corrupt British administrator.

A word on Zahra. Parodi was naturally outraged that someone could get into her room – in a military hospital, no less – and kill her, and ordered lockdown and extensive forensic tests. The doctor’s reaction? “Shit happens.”

A flippant, insensitive telling remark.

al-Khafaji, meanwhile, was full guns blazing. Literally.

He went to collect his belongings from his apartment and found Professor Rashid there waiting for him, expressing a desire to take him to his daughter.

We have seen him be a mild-mannered, avuncular father figure, but with everything on the line and the situation in a country torn apart by war, he’s shown a steely side to him. And so it continued. The local youths, who contend that he is a collaborator, faced him down in the street, machine guns at the ready.

It was a thrilling scene, al-Khafaji barking rational thought to them as he and Rashid edged towards Karl’s car. It ended in a shoot-out of sorts, and he knew from that moment that he had to get out of the country and quickly, preferably with both of his daughters.

But there was a problem: Sawsan. She had hatched a plan to sneak into the Green Zone and take out Temple all on her own.

So the clock was ticking, and this led to a number of jeopardy situations, where threat was in the air: Parodi and Temple went at it, Temple hired the scowling al-Nasir to take out al-Khafaji, and al-Khafaji himself asked Miss Ford to help him get Mrouj out of the hospital and into a safe place.

It was all expertly staged and, by the end of it all – with Sawsan failing in her attempt to take down Temple and speeding away to a prison camp (presumably) in the back of Evans’ car – I wasn’t sure how it would all end next week.

Would al-Khafaji escape with his daughters intact? Would someone die at the very last hurdle? WOuld al-Nasir catch up with his nemesis? Would Temple escape justice?

It’s all to play for.

Paul Hirons





REVIEW: Baghdad Central (S1 E4/6)

Well, I did not expect this.

In episode three – the half-way point of this highly entertaining, intriguing and tense series – saw al-Khafaji show extreme cunning and scam the scammers. Not only that but he was locked and loaded again, after buying back his pistol with the money he stole for Temple, he’s now pulling on his uniform preparing for something.

And that something seems to be an almighty confrontation with Temple. A lead takes al-Khafaji to a safe house owned by Temple, and he believes that he’s also responsible for the death of American Kibbert.

Elsewhere, Parodi is sniffing something. He visits Sanaa’s mother’s house and is shown a photograph of Sanaa, Zahra… and Sawsan together. He doesn’t know it yet, but he might have stumbled into a plot involving the three young women. One is dead, one is in custody and the other – al-Khafaji’s daughter – is on the run.

Now then, Temple is livid and strongly suspects al-Khafaji of taking his money. So much so, he invents a war crime and has him arrested. He also raids his house, and although doesn’t find his money does find Suzy’s (Sawsan) lanyard.

Now both Parodi AND Temple know that Sawsan – or Suzy – is al-Khafaji’s daughter.

Temple in full twitchy Leonard Rossiter mode kicks seven bells out of al-Khafaji in his prison cell, but only after Our Man has a lot of fun taunting him. “Buying houses with coalition money, using the man they found dead in one of them to supply him with women?”

That is Temple’s story and route to wealth and corruption.

Everything was now on the table, out in the open. We now knew why Temple was doing what he was doing, Parodi and Temple knew what al-Khafaji’s real motive was… there was only one problem – al-Khafaji was in jail.

It took the combined efforts of Mrouj and Parodi – who hates Temple remember – to save his bacon. They extracted a confession of sorts from poor Zahra (who was later murdered by one of Temple’s men) and Parodi offered al-Khafaji a deal – find Sawsan and help solve the Kibbert case. He was free to be a policeman again.

But what of Sawsan? We saw her meet with Rashid, who, it seems, had helped her and her friends gain entry into the Green Zone as interpreters only to see what Temple was up to and try to take him down from the inside. Rashid implored her not to go down the road of insurgency, but Sawsan’s mind was made up: she was staying in Baghdad and fighting.

It was now down to her father to find her before she did something really stupid (stupid in the sense of not getting killed). It was an interesting re-set: al-Khafaji now back on the streets, carrying out good, old-fashioned police work.

At the start of this episode, it looked as though he had run into trouble, but has almost been given a second chance. (Well, third chance if you count the rebirth he experienced after his initial run-in with al Nasir in episode one.)

And this new purpose, this third chance, has seemingly hardened al-Khafaji.

The last two episodes look set to be good ones.

Paul Hirons




REVIEW: Baghdad Central (S1 E3/6)

It’s been hectic again in the real world, so I’m taking the opportunity to catch up with this impactful and intelligent procedural set in Baghdad around the time of the second Gulf War in 2003.

Muhsin Kadr al-Khafaji has entered the dragon’s lair and committed to help Temple, even though his real motive is to find his daughter Sawsan.

At the end of episode two, Candy (or Zahra), was being kept under close watch in an American military hospital after attempting to ram her was inside the Green Zone with an SUV.

But the action in this episode really kicked off when al-Khafaji visited Professor Rashid at her residence. He remonstrated with her for information about Zahra, and when it was clear that she had something to do with Zahra, pleaded with her to let him know where his daughter was. He did not know, he said, why she would not help him.

Make no mistake, Rashid is playing a dangerous game, it’s just that we don’t know – at the moment – what her game is.

al-Khafaji then had to rush out into a back room, because Temple showed up, demanding to know more or less the same thing: who was Zahra? He told Rashid: “She was employed by me under your recommendation.”

As al-Khafaji was pondering this, he noticed a figure slinking about on the CCTV outside. It was Sawsan.

It’s interesting to see in series when a big reveal like this is staged, and here it happened slap-bang in the middle of the run.

Knowing that his daughter was alive, al-Khafaji intensified his efforts, which meant playing games of his own. He was prepared to play Parodi and Temple off against each other in order to interview Zahra. He wanted to do it along so he could ask questions about Sawsan, but the army fellas wanted to listen in. He had to be careful, very careful, so as not to give his game away.

al-Khafaji is a skilled detective and while he made sure his interview contained tidbits of what the occupiers wanted to hear, there was another, almost subliminal interview taking place – at the end, Zahra nodded to al-Khafaji, although what this confirmed I wasn’t sure. Perhaps that she confirmed that she knew his daughter?

Increasingly throughout this, Temple’s secretary Miss Ford was dropping information behind her boss’s back, and seemed to be working with Parodi… also behind her boss’s back. It’s a nest of politics, conflicting loyalties and power dynamics and it’s riveting to watch.

Caught in the middle, of course, is al-Khafaji, who, everywhere he went gets more and more confirmation that his daughter is alive and active, and was working alongside other girls. As ‘translators’? As prostitutes? As insurgents?

We don’t know yet, but al-Khafaji’s desperation was also giving him confidence, and there was a great scene where he wound up Temple like a coiled spring. It was hilarious, but also menacing – Temple is an interesting character, nervous, officious and arrogant, yes, but beneath it all, there’s something else lurking. Something quite dangerous.

Something else was indeed lurking: the final scene saw al-Khafaji steal into Temple’s lodging where he found a bag full of cash.

Not only does he find the cash, but he also walks off with it and uses some of it buy his gun back.

Bloody hell al-Khafaji!

Paul Hirons





REVIEW: Baghdad Central (S1 E2/6)

Last week’s opening episode of Channel 4’s Baghdad Central was hugely impressive.

Telling the story of the American occupation during the war of 2003, it features Muhsin Kadr al-Khafaji (a supremely good Waleed Zuaiter), a police inspector during the Saddam regime who now finds himself – like many other Iraqis – without a job, their present and future in limbo.

The first episode brought a new flavour to our crime drama fix, realising as it did a war-torn city we in the west had only seen in news reports. This series brings the complexities, the anxieties and the suspicions of living in a Middle Eastern war zone to impressive life, tacking on an intriguing noir story.

al-Khafaji is searching for his missing daughter, Sawsan, and accepted the offer of the highly suspicious British bureaucrat Temple (a brilliant Bertie Carvel) to come and work for him helping to rebuild the Iraqi police force from inside the Green Zone. Work for him and his youngest daughter Mrouj would receive free medical treatment for her kidney condition.

How could he refuse?

But, as we saw in this second episode, working for the coalition forces brings with it a stigma. It wasn’t long that al-Khafaji’s neighbours demanded he move out of his apartment complex. There’s no doubt that as the tensions begin to rise, between occupiers and the oppressed, the intensity with which they demand him to leave will no doubt increase.

In fact, al-Khafiji is good at making enemies. He also had another altercation with Salim al Nasir, the sneering man who tortured him in episode one.

One of the highlights of that first episode – one of many, it has to be said – was the Sanaa strand. A young woman who had been sexually assaulted by Americans, she felt the shame of her experience so acutely she killed her family’s American hostage – Kibbert – and eventually herself.

Sanaa had connections to Sawsan, as she did to ‘Candy’ another Iraqi woman who had been working with the Americans. Just how they were working for Americans we do not know, but there’s a link to university professor Zubeida Rashid. Had she been supplying local young women to the Americans?

Candy turned up in this episode, killing a man who had a fistful of condoms and was obviously expecting a jolly good time and driving his SUV head-on into the Green Zone checkpoint. She survived, and it’s only a matter of time until al-Khafaji gets to interview her uncover her links to his daughter’s disappearance. Unless someone gets to her first (why was Temple staring at her menacingly through the blinds of her hospital room?).

It was all starting to bubble up nicely.

Most importantly for al-Khafaji, he was beginning to gain the trust of Temple and of American Captain, Parodi. They had been impressed with his detective work at the scene of a shootout at Temple’s so-called safe house – where he found the body of Kibbert in a crawl space – and the way he handled the Candy situation.

Unbeknown to them, he was also conducting his secret investigation into his daughter’s disappearance within the confines of the Green Zone.

I’m really enjoying this series so far – it mixes the familiar with the unfamiliar, presenting a tell-tale detective noir (that opening music makes it feel very European in many ways) in a place we’ve never really seen before. There’s jeopardy around every corner, and yet our main character is calm in the face of warring factions, both inside and outside of the Green Zone.

This makes for an arresting mix. (No pun intended.)

Paul Hirons





REVIEW: Baghdad Central (S1 E1/6)

Based on the novel by Elliott Colla and adapted for television by Stephen Butchard (Vincent, House Of Saddam and Five Daughters), Baghdad Central is a handsome, six-part series from Channel 4, which, like many of its crime drama offerings from the recent past, seeks to view the genre through a slightly different lens.

The more intriguing crime dramas from the past decade have all had a strong sense of place, and as Brits have become used – and indeed crave – crime dramas from different places and cultures (hello Nordic Noir), Baghdad Central trumps them all by telling its story from the heart of a city we think we know, but really we don’t, and through the eyes of a main protagonist who lives and works there.

We first see Muhsin al-Khafaji (Waleed Zuaiter) as an Iraqi policeman, in his car chatting with his two daughters – Mrouj and Sawsan – before war hit the city. Posters of Saddam adorn the walls, markets and streets course with vibrant urban life.

It is March 2003.

Fast forward to October 2003, and things are very different. Americans now occupy the city, and Khafaji is now an ex-cop who looks out from his balcony to see a city in ruins, the horizon often lit up by bombs against the night sky. This is now daily life here – the vibrancy of the streets, the people, the markets now juxtaposed with fear, suspicion and paranoia.

This is war. This is daily life.

And this sense of place, this sense of a new culture we haven’t really seen before on British television, hits you right between the eyes. The city is cinematically shot, and we’re drawn into this chaotic world instantly. Khafaji is an instantly likeable character, too – world-weary, cynical, but avuncular, with a wry sense of humour – and seems to be caught between two worlds: one populated by Saddam’s supporters and those who desperately want change.

His world is flipped even more on its head when Sawsan is reported missing. In a stable city that would be scary enough, but in a war-torn metropolis with potential enemies everywhere, it’s even scarier. Khafaji is called into action immediately, pacing the streets, calling on her friends and teachers at the university for any clues. He finds that she’s been working for the Americans in some capacity, and Mrouj backs this up, saying that she has been translating papers for dollars.

It’s a great opening act as we establish the family dynamic, get to know Khafaji better as he traverses the city in the search for his daughter and understand how people live in war-torn cities (spoiler: they do their best and they adapt to the new normal as quickly and effectively as possible). It feels like a traditional police drama with a strong male presence at its heart – like we see almost every week in TV crime drama – but it’s been placed in such an alluring almost disorientating location, with an unfamiliar culture swirling around it, that it feels fresh and different.

As Khafaji continues his personal investigation – including coming into contact with Sawsan’s enigmatic university tutor Professor Zubeida Rashid and a brilliantly funny taxi driver called Karl – there are side stories here that add dimensions and wallops of socio-political and cultural context.

One side story features Sanaa, a contemporary of Sawsan’s. She has been raped by a group of Americans (soldiers? bureaucrats? We’re not sure yet), and her cousin kidnaps an American citizen called Kibbert in order to find the perpetrators. While he’s captive at Sanaa’s house, the tension is unbearable – Sanaa is wracked with confusion, agony, shame and humiliation after her ordeal; while her cousin is intent on killing the Kibbert if he doesn’t give up the identity of Sanaa’s assailants. Just when you think that Sanaa is about to release him, she takes a gun and not only shoots him but herself.

It’s shocking, heartbreaking and makes you sick to your stomach – two casualties of war, but not from any traditional battlefield.

As for Khafaji, Baghdad Central takes another terrifying turn when the Americans – looking for Kibbert – begin rounding up seemingly random men. Khafaji is one of these men, and while in custody, he’s tortured mercilessly and brutally, including a particular painful moustache waxing; all the while accused, falsely of being part of a militia.

He’s finally sprung from captivity by Frank Temple, a British ex-Police Officer, who’s been installed in the city’s ‘Green Zone’ and tasked with rebuilding the Iraqi police force. Temple is a delicious character – bored, arrogant and at war with his American counterparts. He’s also sharp, manipulative and dangerously ruthless. Bertie Carvel as Temple is just fantastic and is surely channelling the late Leonard Rossiter in his portrayal, jutting out his chin and staring down his glasses with insouciance.

Temple sees an opportunity with Khafaji – he offers him help with Mrouj, who’s sick with an unnamed kidney condition, and a safe place within the green zone in return for helping him recruit new officers for his police force.

The atmosphere in the streets has changed, and Khafaji is now viewed with suspicion by those lads on the corners who once were friends. Suddenly allegiances are questioned, sides have been taken, and among this simmering Khafaji feels he has no choice but to accept Temple’s offer.

This was a fantastic start to the series: action-packed, full of procedural momentum, but also packed full of context, cultural and emotional depth. And in Khafaji, we might have our next great TV detective.

There was one shot that took the breath away: while Professor Rashid was travelling through the streets to work by car, her driver stopped at a junction. As they looked onto the crossing point they saw a horse; a beautiful thoroughbred horse who had been liberated from one of the Republican palaces, but was now left to wander the streets. Within the blink of an eye a car barreled into it, killing it instantly. It was a shocking, heartbreaking moment – one of several in the opening episode – and was perhaps a hideously apt visual metaphor for what the Iraqi people were now going through: set free, but into what?

Paul Hirons