Fast Times at 'Baghdad High'
The documentary, due to première at the Tribeca Film Festival, follows four teenagers trying to eke out a normal life inside a war zone.
About half way through "Baghdad High," a teenager named Hayder walks the 500 yards between his front door and a friend's Baghdad home, the camera trembling in his hand. "I may get killed at any moment," he explains. But when the lens opens again, he is sitting in a brightly lit bedroom, slamming through the sunny chorus of "Hotel California" on an out-of-tune acoustic guitar.Skip to next paragraph
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This juxtaposition – between the foreign and the familiar – forms the heart of the documentary that has its American première at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York this week. Unlike the flood of Iraq-related films spilling into the marketplace, "Baghdad High" does not take the long view. It is filmed close-up, in jittery autobiographical asides and teary confessionals, by four boys – a Christian, a Kurd, a Shiite, and a Sunni – trapped in a war zone.
Mohammad, who is half-Sunni, half-Shiite, lives with his single mother, and fights hard to stay afloat academically; Hayder, a Shiite, sings along to Britney Spears; Anmar, a Christian, wonders if his girlfriend is ever going to call him back; Ali, the Kurd, faces the prospect of a new life outside Baghdad with trepidation and then an unexpected levity.
The boys meet in school, and then retire to their homes, where they can often hear the crackle of gunfire or smell the acrid smoke that follows a bombing. The cameras are rarely turned off.
Peter Scarlet, the creative director of the Tribeca Film Festival, says "Baghdad High" has an astonishing ability to penetrate a society mostly closed to the Western world. The boys don't see Iraq from the top down. They see it from the inside out, and their lenses follow the seismic – the execution of Saddam Hussein, for instance, or the implementation of a stifling new curfew – and the quotidian with equal ease.
"It's a side of the war we certainly haven't seen before," Mr. Scarlet says. In the past few years, "the tools of filmmaking have become accessible to everyone. What's really exciting is when you see something like 'Baghdad High,' which wouldn't have been possible without this improved technology."
Says Ali, one of the boys featured in the film: "The media can't show everything that's happening [in Iraq] because there are so many deaths, too many explosions."
What's missing from the coverage, he says, is the fact that "people are living their normal lives – they're growing up – with all this stuff going on."
A different aspect of life in Iraq
"Baghdad High" was shot starting in 2006, when Iraq was plunging deeper into sectarian conflict. (It debuted in England on the BBC and will be shown on HBO later this year.) The film's directors, Laura Winter and Ivan O'Mahoney, had both spent time on the ground in Iraq, and yearned to tell a more nuanced, human story of the war.
"It struck us that, when looking at the slate of Iraq films and documentaries, that all you ever hear is the opinion of warlords, generals, religious fanatics, and other 'leaders,' " says Mr. O'Mahoney, who worked as a peacekeeper in Bosnia during the 1990s, and as a freelance producer for HBO, the BBC, and the Discovery Channel. He now heads his own production company, StoryLabTV.