“Through As’ad, the story questions our right to exploit an inanimate object, more so a human-like one, inevitably reminding the audience of sex trafficking networks and raising questions about what we could face with the rise of anthropomorphic artificial intelligence as consumption goods.”
As’ad is a teenager living in Baghdad. Every day, As’ad and his older brother Taha roam the city landfill, the ‘hanging gardens’, looking for plastic to resell to a recycling dealer. The orphaned siblings barely make a living. Every once in a while, As’ad disobeys Taha and explores the trash coming from US military bases, searching for porn magazines that he’ll later sell to other men.
One day, As’ad discovers a blonde sex doll in the dump. He takes her home and bathes her, only to find himself unable to play with her. When Taha finds out about the doll he’s offended by her presence, deeming it profane. When the siblings separate, Amir, a teenage customer of As’ad’s magazine venture, starts pressuring him over a debt. As’ad decides to use the doll – which they find can talk – as a business project to pay for his debts, triggering a conflict with the process of humanization he’s been going through with the doll. As the business thrives, the doll will become a tragic object of desire.
In Hanging Gardens (Janain Mualaqa), director Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji uses a sex doll to expose the conflict between a society of consumption and our almost inherent animism. As’ad is the perfect subject to expose it: a marginalized child, in an invaded country, who works recovering discarded items to sell as raw materials. When he discovers a valuable item, perhaps the first one he’s ever possessed, he allows market value to dictate the fate of the doll, regardless of the sentimental attachment he developed to it. Through As’ad, the story questions our right to exploit an inanimate object, more so a human-like one, inevitably reminding the audience of sex trafficking networks and raising questions about what we could face with the rise of anthropomorphic artificial intelligence as consumption goods.
The film also digs into the struggle between the idealization of the West versus the anti-US feeling among Iraqi society. Taha, a full-grown adult, considers the American trash loads forbidden territory, whereas younger As’ad (who was probably born during the occupation) seems accustomed to the presence of war waste, as he even takes shelter in an abandoned war tank. We later learn their parents were orphaned during the US invasion. This perhaps-too-literal narrative decision serves as an analogy for a country that did not choose to face a reconstruction process by itself.
The storyline deals with sexuality focusing particularly on the market that surrounds masturbation (sex dolls, paper magazines), which is often a boys-only club, perhaps more so in conservative societies. Even when the first and almost only woman to talk is the doll, there is a constant examination of how men treat female figures, with the platonic relationship between Taha and his female neighbour the only plotline to include the gaze of a living woman. A self-imposed constraint that limits the depth of Al Daridji’s reflection.