It’s not easy to write about In My Mother’s Arms — an intensely direct, simple, and affecting documentary — without sounding like I’m a bleeding heart. The film is about the day-to-day (and present-day) problems of 32 boys whose parents have all been killed by terrorist bombings in Iraq. They live in a four-room apartment in Sadr City — an extremely violent neighborhood of north Baghdad — and are cared for by a middle-aged student named Husham al-Dhbe (or “Mr. Husham”) and four of his volunteers. Husham brings the boys into his orphanage the old-fashioned way: by driving through the city, looking for children who live on the street, and offering them a home and an education. In a less fragmented country, a practice like this would be heavily regulated — if not outlawed. But Husham has picked up 32 boys by the side of the road and taken them to a home, determined to raise them.
Husham and his volunteers (he calls them “carers”) have no apparent motive for doing what they do (cooking for the boys, coaching them in diving and soccer, breaking up their fights, making sure they study for school, begging money off of local businessmen to keep the place running) besides sheer human sympathy. His main task is to keep his orphanage, a fly-by-night operation which receives nothing from the Iraqi government or NGOs, afloat. He has no money to pay his volunteers and spends what little he can beg on the rent for his building and food for his orphans.
The middle section of the documentary follows him on a quest around Sadr City to locate a mental health specialist for the boys; we watch him chain-smoke and sweat his way through a desperate interview with a child psychiatrist who refuses to accept his meager pay. The boys are all traumatized (most were present when their parents were killed) — not speaking, fighting incessantly — so Husham scours the stores for any readings on child psychology and meets with a doctor who tells him that if he can’t afford a full-time psychiatrist, he should at least work with his volunteers to create a sense of family among the boys. Instead, he hires a theater director to come to the orphanage periodically and put on a play with the boys. They write and perform a piece about orphans who miss their mothers — In My Mother’s Arms. From the look of things, it accomplishes the doctor’s advice. The play is a tiny ray of bright light in the grimness of modern Baghdad. But after it, the landlord gives them two weeks to eviction, and Husham heads back out to the streets to scrounge up a new place to live. The film ends with a shot of one of the boys riding a bike down a Sadr City street, away from the orphanage whose fate is still undecided.
The sincerity and willpower with which Husham looks after the orphans — at one point he clips each boy’s fingernails, moving carefully from one to the next as they sit patiently on their bunk beds — comes from a clear and desperate need to save something of Baghdad’s future. Husham seems old enough (although little background or personal information is offered ) to remember life under Saddam and the days before the first Iraq War; at one point, when the power goes out while the boys watch a soccer match on TV, Husham exclaims “Shit on Saddam! Turn the power back on!” His good deeds, lingered over during this film’s long sequences — him pleading with the most traumatized boy to cheer for a soccer match or schlepping from merchant to merchant asking for donations to keep his orphanage alive — are based on something more tangible than mere guilt: the desire to save his country from collapse.