The small, quotidian realities of living in a foreign-occupied, divided city are brought coolly but poignantly to life in “The Boys From Baghdad High.” Neat idea of getting four high schoolers to vidcam their own thoughts and daily lives, across one academic year, gives a rather different perspective on life in the Iraqi capital from that usually seen on telecasts and docus. Preemed at Blighty’s Sheffield Doc/Fest in November, film is set to air on U.K. pubcaster BBC2 on Jan. 8 and in a 75-minute version on HBO. Further fest play and airtime look assured.
The four kids studying for their university entrance exams at Tariq bin-Ziad High School for Boys, in a mixed middle-class suburb, are all 17 or 18. For docu purposes, they make up a convenient cross-section of society, though they genuinely seem to be tight friends: There’s Ali the Kurd, Anmar the Catholic, Hayder the Shia and baby-faced Mohammad, who’s half-Sunni, half-Shia.
Film starts with the new academic year in October 2006, the bloodiest month since the start of the war, with 2,700 civilians killed in Baghdad alone. But unlike their counterparts in other docus, these boys aren’t so much concerned with everyday survival: Hayder dreams of being a singer-songwriter, Anmar is worried because he can’t reach his g.f on his cell phone, and Mohammed is a happy-go-lucky teen.
Pic has no news inserts, little talk of politics (except in the most general terms) and no footage of atrocities or violence. What auds see is what the kids see — with the producers’ proviso that, for safety reasons, they should only film at home, at school and inside cars. Though life is becoming more dangerous in the boys’ once-comfortable nabe, the pressure is more mental than physical, as their studies are interrupted by power cuts and explosions, pupils disappear from school (75 in a few months, plus two killed), and more and more people think of leaving the beleaguered city.
Anmar lives under the worry that, if armed sectarian gangs move into their area, he’ll be victimized for being a Christian. Ali and his family move north to Arbil, in the quiet Kurdish region, after a few months — but as a restless teen, he starts to miss the “action” in Baghdad. Mohammad plans to move to Ukraine if he can get $1,300, pass his exams and get his nationality certificate (and passport) on his 18th birthday.
Occasional markers, such as Saddam Hussein’s execution on Dec. 30 and President Bush sending 30,000 more troops over in spring 2007, are seen on TV and discussed by adults and kids. And frequent intertitles supply ever-mounting statistics on deaths, disappearances and the like. But the greatest toll on the Baghdad high schoolers is the fracturing of ordinary teen dreams and their inability to to enjoy what should be the best and freest years of their lives.
Kudos go to the post-production team for knitting an obviously vast amount of material into a technically smooth package, with discreet use of music jogging the film along. This is history writ on a small, personal scale, away from the frontlines, but in its own small way, it says more about the tragedy of Iraq than pumped-up fakumentaries like Brian De Palma’s “Redacted.”