"House Of Saddam": Interview With Director Alex Holmes

11/13/2009 08:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"House of Saddam," a four-part miniseries that begins tonight on HBO, chronicles the rise and fall of the former Iraqi leader as seen from the perspective of life inside the palace. Covering a quarter century of Iraqi history--from Saddam's 1979 coup up to his months in hiding after the fall of Baghdad--the series provides an intimate look at how the charismatic, cunning, and ceaselessly brutal dictator eventually self-destructed, taking his country down with him in the process.

Produced jointly by the BBC and HBO, parts 1 and 2 air tonight at 9pm. Parts 3 and 4 air next Sunday.

The Huffington Post recently spoke to the series' director, Alex Holmes, about the project.

You had originally set out to make a documentary about the siege of Fallujah in 2004. How did you come to make a film about Saddam's rise and fall instead?

Alex Holmes: I was trying to do something much more contemporary about what happened in Fallujah and I was trying to get inside the mindset of some of the insurgents. I had the possibility of meeting some of them and in order to prepare myself I started getting more into the details of the recent political history of Iraq. I, like most other people, had the received picture of Iraqi politics from the news, which was mostly about the Baath party and what have you, and what I hadn't understood was just how closely Saddam's family and his family connections mapped onto the politics in Iraq.

I had started thinking about what an astonishing journey Saddam had been on. I was looking at some of the old news footage, and he had made this incredibly heroic trip to France in the early 1970s when he was the deputy president. He really is a sort of film star in this footage, and he was incredibly popular at home. How he had gone from that to being this hunted fugitive, I was just taken by the story.

What made you want to tell the story of Iraq specifically from Saddam's perspective?

There are many ways you could address the history of it. You could make a very fine documentary on Iraq's history, but I was interested in making a drama that got inside the characters, and I think given that those characters aren't available for us to interview or to psychoanalyze, recreating them in a drama was the best way to get a sense of that perspective.

I saw what I was doing very much as portraiture. This is my version of Saddam. Other people will paint different portraits of him, some of them significantly different, others subtly different, and they will all of them, in their own way, be valid.

A lot of reviewers have compared the series to the "Sopranos," given the way it focuses simultaneously on the dynamics of power and the dynamics of family. Were there any particular works you used as a model or inspiration?

As I mentioned, one of the things that really fascinated me was this overlap between politics and the family, and that immediately reminded me of the gangster genre of films. And so that was always in my mind, That mingling of pressures--pressures of loyalty but also pressures of business--that you find in gangster films is very clearly reproduced in Saddam. That was a constant point of reference.

What did you do in terms of historical research for the film?

Obviously, you start by reading everything that's been written about, or by, Saddam. I had a small but very hard-working team of researchers that were reading a lot of stuff in Arabic and translating it for me. What was fascinating was that the perspective of a lot of the biographies written about him changed hugely over time as his standing in the international community changed. You could see the hand of political interest stirring the pot sometimes; some of the things that were written about Saddam were clearly written with a political agenda.

Though, that's not to say that most of the stuff coming out of Iraq didn't have it's own agenda, that of presenting him in a very positive light. There was a great deal of hagiography, and Saddam personally took that to extreme degrees. I was quite interested in the way he continually identified himself with the state in a way that really went beyond any other dictator I've certainly heard of. Often his physical being stood in for the state.

How so?

Two examples always stood out for me. After the first Gulf War he put the words "Allahu Akbar" ["God is great"] across the middle of the Iraqi flag to identify more strongly with the Islamic world. But he did it with his own handwriting, which I think is a fascinating turn.

Also, after the Iran-Iraq war, he had monumental arches, the swords of Qādisīyah, built at either end of the parade ground in Baghdad. They're held there by these great big strong arms, and they are actually taken from plaster casts made of Saddam's arms. They are anatomically correct in every detail, down to the thumb, and the fingerprint swirl on the thumb of the arch is that of Saddam himself.

The series presents a remarkably intimate look at the inner-workings of Saddam's world. Were you able to interview many of the people who were around him during those years?

Yes, but after the invasion, a lot of the people we wanted to talk to were scattered to the four winds. So we had teams of people interviewing in Iraq, but we also interviewed people in Jordan, people who had come to the UK, the United States.

I was surprised at how willing people were to speak to us. I'm talking about people who were members of the government, people who worked in the intelligence arm of Saddam's state, but also right through to people who worked as cooks and cleaners in the palaces, people who actually saw Saddam as much as anybody towards the end on a day-to-day basis.

What was particularly striking about the way these various people presented him?

What was interesting was that almost everybody had ambivalence towards him. Even those who hated him absolutely recognized he had been a strong champion for Iraq at one stage. And even those who were his supporters also recognized that he wasn't this flawless leader. Since he was deposed, there was a reality check, and people were able to say, 'yes he did have his faults but actually he was still the best thing for the country.' Often it reminded me a little bit of what I understand to be the case when you have an abusive father in the family. The family despises him for his abuse, but at the same time he's still their father, and there's a loyalty and an affection there that somehow is never quite erased. That ambivalence was very prominent in almost everyone we spoke to.

Was the ambivalence in some way a result of a distorted view of him--does this speak to the success of his mythmaking?

I think by the end people had come to have a pretty clear view of his strengths and his weaknesses in their own minds. Enough evidence had accumulated over the years. His mythmaking was a veneer. I don't think it went very deep for the Iraqi people.

Looking at the years between the two wars from Saddam's perspective, as opposed to that of the West, did you get a sense of what was the biggest misperception he had about what was going on?

Saddam's biggest misconception was that, in order to represent to himself what had happened during the first conflict in the Gulf, in 1991, he convinced himself that it was a conflict that he had won. He had invaded Kuwait, he had made his point, and he had then withdrawn. And the coalition forces back in 1991 showed themselves to be weak in his mind by not pursuing the Iraqi army back into Iraq, by not actually, to put it bluntly, finishing the job, and pursuing Saddam all the way to Baghdad.

And when the same situation seemed to be arriving again in 2004, I think Saddam felt that the West was likely to act in the same way. He saw the UN faltering, he thought the coalition won't have the stomach for the fight and it won't have the political will to make this happen without international support. I think in a way he was himself quite taken by surprise that the invasion happened, and that it had happened so quickly and with such force.

So many of the films about Iraq since the invasion seem to have focused on the role of US foreign policy in trying to understand what went wrong. It doesn't seem there's been much of an attempt to see things from the other side. Is making this film in some way a critique of that?

That's absolutely the case. I wanted to see things from the inside. I made this film because no one had ever tried to say what it's like from the Iraqi perspective, certainly no one in the West--people weren't free to in Iraq. I think that if we had done a little bit more of that a little bit earlier, the results wouldn't have been as cataclysmic, and so many lives wouldn't have been lost as they have been. I think Saddam was someone we always wanted to keep at arm's length, whether he was our friend, our ally or our foe. There was an inadequate understanding of what his agenda was, what would motivate him in certain directions or in others. We assumed he would have the same motivations and value systems that we have, and I think that was a mistake.

Suggest a correction