Some documentaries chronicle horrors so disturbing that viewers need to erect an invisible barrier between their emotions and the screen. That’s the case with “Isis, Tomorrow. The Lost Souls of Mosul,” a deeply disquieting plunge into the unending nightmare of children in the Iraqi city of Mosul, until recently under ISIS control and now liberated (a word best used advisedly). Amid an urban landscape straight out of “Mad Max,” Italian journalist-directors Francesca Mannocchi and Alessio Romenzi traverse the devastated city talking with kids whose trauma is so deep it’s impossible to even imagine there’s hope for a better future. The trick for the audience will be how to shield themselves from the film’s gut-punch while still remaining open to its shattering power.
Mannocchi and Romenzi begin the documentary six months after the city was taken back by Iraqi forces and their allies, following three years of ISIS rule. Images of apocalyptic destruction recall newsreels from the bombardments of the two world wars, yet the smug comfort of black-and-white historical distance doesn’t exist with Mosul, and an early scene of children scavenging amid the ruins can be compared only with dystopian fiction. Apart from such images, the documentary’s potency comes from the way the directors show the aftermath of inhuman indoctrination, together with the legacy of an abiding hatred that won’t die with the passing of just one generation. When men train kids to kill, when juveniles are prepped for suicide missions, how are those twisted instincts corrected, and how can the pain felt by survivors be ameliorated?
Children from both sides of the conflict are interviewed: There are those who witnessed family members savagely beaten and murdered by ISIS fighters, and others whose fathers inculcated them in jihadist rhetoric and sent them out to kill. Twelve-year-old Yousef Ayoub remembers a carefree time when he went to school and played with friends; now he’s haunted by memories of the people slaughtered before his eyes. Omar, just 13, was propagandized by his father and became an ISIS soldier; now he can’t leave his barren apartment because ISIS families are ostracized or attacked.
These are just two of the kids interviewed, all of whom have horror stories difficult to fully process. Adults speak about the fanaticism of child recruits, so easily turned into unreasoning machines, and ISIS videos show chilling images of training sessions in which young boys are taught to withstand pain. A mother named Habsha says the inescapable memories of things she’s seen make her long for death, but the need to stay alive for her elderly mother and surviving children forces her to go on. These aren’t generic figures incomprehensibly wailing but haunted survivors whose unnerving gaze digs into the viewer as they speak of their experiences.
The traumas are too deep to fade away with the fall of ISIS. On one side are the victims of jihadist fervor, their shattered lives rendering them either numb or vengeful, and on the other side are the former ISIS soldiers and their families, bullied by the community and denied access to aid. When a 12-year-old says he can never forgive, what chances are there to end the cycle of bitterness? The film offers no ray of false hope, no pathway out of despair. It stands as a record of the depths of inhumanity, and a searing testament to the international community’s failure to protect anyone from wars that don’t involve first-world nations.
Both directors are award-winning war journalists who have a feel for putting together information in hard-hitting ways — their job isn’t to suggest a solution, but to raise awareness and chronicle atrocity. Romenzi’s background as a war photographer is evident in the stark compositions that achieve a level of artistry while remaining subservient to the human costs. They don’t shy away from showing dead bodies in the city’s rubble, though undoubtedly they’ve spared viewers many sights that will trouble them to the end of their days.