These are times Valentine Balass would sooner forget, but it does provide her son with some fascinating, if not harrowing, insights into a previously dark chapter in his family's history.
Balass's documentary Baghdad Twist, opening Mother's Day at the NFB Cinema, will also be quite an eye-opener for others in the dark about life in one of the world's most troubled regions. Using vintage Super 8 footage and faded stills from the mid-1960s, Balass has his mother, off-camera, recount a hair-raising odyssey that brought their family to Montreal from Baghdad.
Making life much more dicey for the Balass clan in Baghdad was the fact they were Jewish. She recalls that the Jewish community of Iraq had been thriving up until the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. But what was once a community of 180,000 had dwindled down to 10,000 to 12,000 by the early 1950s, due in large part to a climate of accusations implying Iraq's Jews were traitors and, as a result, fear of arrest and worse among the Jews.
In the 1960s, the family tried to maintain "a sense of normalcy," depicted in wedding reception footage where guests are doing the twist. Following the 1967 Six Day War, Iraq's Jews were targeted with arrests, spying charges and public hangings.
Balass's dad was detained three times for no specific reason, but after he was let out on bail following the last arrest, Valentine was taking no chances. She took charge and made plans to bolt Baghdad quickly with her husband, three kids and other family members.
Leaving everything in their Baghdad home intact, so as not to arouse any suspicion, this group of 12 fled, at enormous risk, to the Kurdish north of Iraq. From there, they slipped into Iran, then made their way to Israel before ending up in Montreal in 1970 - with pretty much only the clothes on their backs.
The filmmaker was only 4 when they left Baghdad and has few recollections of Iraq.
"I was unaware of what my mother went through and all the pressure she was under," Balass says. "The whole transition she had undergone from a housewife and mother who was being taken care of to someone who had to take control of a situation and take care of a huge extended family in trying to escape Iraq.
"Those were particularly frightening times in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was just starting to make a name for himself then. It was an atmosphere of absolute terror for Jewish families. Our journey was dangerous enough, but if we had been caught ... ."
Read more here.
Montreal readers can see "Baghdad Twist" from Sunday through Tuesday May 11-May 13 at 7pm (English version) and at 8.30pm (French subtitles), at the NFB Cinema, 1564 St. Denis St. The English version will also be shown Wednesday and Thursday (May 14-15) at 7pm at CinemaSpace, Segal Centre, 5170 Côte Ste. Catherine Rd.