- Baghdad High / The Boys of Baghdad High (2007) movie review: Four Iraqi high-school students use their cameras to show the world who they are. And for better or for worse, they’re “us.”
Baghdad High documentary review: Don’t be surprised to learn that Iraqi adolescents are – for better or for worse – like adolescents everywhere else
Ivan O’Mahoney and Laura Winter’s Baghdad High – The Boys of Baghdad High in the United Kingdom, where it was initially presented – documents the lives of four Baghdad male youths, each belonging to a different ethnic/religious group (Christian, Kurd, Shia, and Sunni), as they enter their final year of high school.
Each of the boys – Hayder, Anmar, Ali, and Mohammad – was given a camera and asked to document his experiences, which explains why Baghdad High focuses on their lives and families rather than on Iraqi or world politics (though Saddam Hussein’s trial verdicts are shown).
After taking a crash course in filmmaking, the four students set out to record their day-to-day lives: A total of 300 hours of footage was compiled and eventually edited down – Johnny Burke is the credited film editor – to just under 90 minutes.
The year is 2006, a grueling time for Iraq: In October, the month school began, 2,722 Iraqis were killed – most of them because of their ethnicity and/or religious backgrounds.
When introduced to a documentary that explores the lives of young men in a war-torn country, in a city where bombings, shootings, and curfews were a daily occurrence, I assumed that I would see something completely unfamiliar.
Instead, what I found in Baghdad High was something close to my own experiences, to my own memories of my friends, but with an added backdrop of war that, admittedly, had me wondering about my own “problems” growing up.
Cameras are us
Baghdad High covers a period of about one year, from fall to summer, the beginning and end of the four students’ final year of high school. The film is interspersed with short intertitles providing bits of information, while the rest is narrated either visually or orally by the boys’ handheld digital cameras.
The cameras, in fact, become the boys’ emotional outlets. They aren’t just objects – they are us, the viewers to whom they are speaking. The teenagers are fully aware of their audience and are eager for us to see and get to know them. The cameras are thus used as mini confessionals, offering insights into their thoughts and passions.
As their personalities shine through, I was instantly swept up by their charm and honesty. Their cameras reveal fears, joys, family struggles, and special moments between friends, creating a portrait of Iraq as seen through the eyes of four “representatives” of that country’s youth – those who are not concerned with the politics behind what is happening, but only that what is happening must stop.
Lives measured by violence
Their lives are constantly measured by bombings and attacks, and yet at times they’re as afraid of facing their final exams as of being shot at. That doesn’t mean they’ve been desensitized to the violence around them; rather, they understand it as something relative to the rest of their experiences.
But what most amazed me about Baghdad High is how similar those teenagers are to my friends and myself. Now, I should add that my finding that “amazing” amazed me. After all, why shouldn’t they be similar to me?
It makes sense that teenagers anywhere are going through similar problems and changes. In point of fact, O’Mahoney and Winter’s film is supposed to be about people who are similar to us, even while living through radically different circumstances.
I know people who worry about violence happening. Those boys don’t worry about violence happening because it is happening all the time. They worry that it might happen to them, or to their friends and family.
Baghdad High / The Boys from Baghdad High (2007)
Director: Ivan O’Mahoney & Laura Winter.
Featuring: Hayder Khalid. Mohammad Raed. Anmar Refat. Ali Shadman.
“Baghdad High (2007): Adolescent Travails in Times of Terror” review text © Keith Waterfield; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Baghdad High (2007) Movie Review” endnotes
Baghdad High documentary image: BBC | ARTE.
“Baghdad High (2007): Adolescent Travails in Times of Terror” last updated in October 2021.