Iraqi director Ahmed Yassin Al-Daradji — who in 2022 won the Red Sea Film Festival‘s top prize with “Hanging Gardens” — will next direct black comedy ”Madness and Honey Days,” in which an audacious theatre director offends Saddam Hussein on stage and winds up in a psychiatric hospital to avoid a punishment of tongue-cutting followed by the death sentence.
Segueing from “Hanging Gardens,” in which a 12-year-old boy finds a discarded American sex doll amid the Baghdad trash and then becomes caught in military crossfire, Al-Daradji is continuing to work with tropes that stem from the absurdities and atrocities of his home country’s recent past.
Speaking on the sidelines of this year’s Red Sea Fest, the director recalled how the story for “Madness and Honey Days” came to him.
“When I was in Baghdad not long ago, I remembered one of my aunts who lost her mind after her husband was killed in the war,” he said adding that when “her mental health got complicated, my parents would not let me visit her. Then I remembered that there is this deep stigma in the Arab world about being mad.”
In “Madness and Honey Days,” after offending Saddam Hussein on stage, a 27-year-old theater director named Salem manages to escape death and the punishment of tongue-cutting by convincing the Ba’athist court of his insanity. He is then exiled to a Baghdad psychiatric hospital, where he must continue to prove his insanity while facing execution if they declare him mentally fit.
Embracing madness, Salem spends months in the psych ward where he falls in love with Adyan, a 25-year-old doctor who is attracted to his talent and skills. She helps him stage a play inspired by “Hamlet,” with the other hospital residents playing different roles, which in the final act leads to a happy resolution to his predicament.
“I’m basically using the freedom window that comes with madness to delve into different behaviors associated with this topic,” Al-Daradji said. “I’m so angry that Saddam Hussein was treated as a normal person. He was a crazy dictator who killed lots of people. How was it possible for him not to be considered mad? So the film will revolve around a triangle of madness, posing the question, ‘What is more insane: the Saddam regime, the U.S. occupation or life inside the psychiatric hospital?’”
“Madness and Honey Days” is being produced by Toronto-based Iraqi writer and producer Maytham Jbara. The project currently has financing in place from Telefilm Canada; Canada Art Council; Saudi Arabia’s Arab Radio and Television Network (ART); the Network of Arab Alternative Screen (NAAS); the Busan Film Festival (APM); Tangled Art+ Disability (Canada). At the Red Sea Souk co-prod platform, it just won the $50,000 MBC Academy/Shahid Award for an Arab project in development or post-production.
The plan is for “Madness and Honey Days” to start shooting in early 2025.