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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    'Baghdad High': Ahead of its HBO première on Aug. 4, the documentary about four Iraqi teens will air on cinema screens at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.
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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.

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.

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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.

Journalists don't "peel too deep into that onion," Ms. Winter says. "The layers we can get to is the hard news, and the hard news points to a place where people are losing their mind."

Eight camera crews of one

A film would have to be more than "meaningless footage of another 'successful' raid against a terrorism cell," O'Mahoney says. It would have to be a tale of the families and individuals struggling to live their lives, outside the spotlight of the Western media.

But O'Mahoney and Winter, a regular Monitor contributor, could not just march over to Baghdad and begin trolling for interview subjects.

"We'd put those we film in danger," says Winter. "There are cultural issues: Families are not going to want a strange man in their house. People would start saying, 'What's going on in there?' "

So instead, Winter and O'Mahoney arrived at the idea of giving cameras to a group of students at Tariq bin Ziad High School in Baghdad. Working remotely – they were not in Iraq during filming – the directors arranged to have eight boys trained in filmmaking.

Children, Winter says, "feel their parents' pressure. They know where they can go. They know where they can't go. And they can be very articulate about all this – very sincere."

Gunfire trumps homework

Sifting through the footage from the eight original participants, O'Mahoney and Winter settled on the four most engaging narratives. Some of the boys, it turned out, were more inclined to introspection, and these were the boys the directors wanted: The ones who could give voice to the aura of anxiety that hangs over Baghdad.

Ali, a Kurd, is eventually forced to decamp to Arbil in the north. (He has since relocated to a high school in the United States.) In one especially haunting nighttime scene, he films himself tinkering with a generator, that has run out of oil.

Staring into the camera, his eyes illuminated by the camera's night-vision effect, he sighs, "There's an airplane up above, shooting into the street. It is my job to be an oil mechanic? I should be studying now."

"I remember those were bad times," Ali says now. "But when I remember them now, they're happy, in a way."

Iraqis were scared and then eventually became accustomed to living with fear. "It's not a good thing that people get used to it," he says. "But what are they going to do? They have to get used to it."

Sectarian healing in the classroom

The film, Winter says, revealed an existence rooted in uncertainty, from sporadic electricity, to "the constant awareness of what steps you're going to take when you walk out your door so you don't get hurt. You can't study. It's hard to focus on learning anything when there's all this violence going on." (As it turns out, the academic year was a disaster for all the participants.)

But "Baghdad High" also traffics in hope: those unexpected moments when the boys are brought together, regardless of religion or cultural heritage. Ali calls this "the times when people can be cool to each other" – when the camera picks up a friendly wrestling match or an uproarious prank.

"We see them joking and showing off," says Scarlet. "And then we see them talking to the camera, and you can feel this human being, opening his soul."

"Baghdad High" has four screenings between April 29 and May 3 at the Tribeca Film Festival. For details, and other festival listings, visit www.tribecafilmfestival.org.

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