'Baghdad High' breakout hit of Tribeca Film Festival
'Baghdad High' is one of those films you know will be good as soon as you hear the concept: Two journalists gave four Baghdad teens video cameras to capture their senior year of high school.
But like most of the packed house Tuesday night at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had no idea the finished documentary--gleaned from more than 300 hours of footage--would be great.
After the film, the Q&A (everybody stayed), and four rounds of applause, I felt like calling and emailing and texting everyone in my life, telling them to Go See This Film! (Or, Wait For it To Air on HBO Later This Year!)
Hayder, Anmar, Ali, Mohammad... if fame were based on merit, these four extraordinary teens would become as well-known as Brandon, Dylan, Kelly and Donna.
They catch themselves and each other, up close and personal, rapping (badly) to Tupac, singing (hilariously) to Britney, stressing about exams, playing soccer, celebrating holidays.
Plus the mandatory teen preening and male bravado (Anmar at one point flexes for the camera, and with a grin says, "Look at my body--extraordinary, the champion.") Mixed with telling displays of how much they care for each other (like a shot of them all lying in the warm sun, piled on top of each other).
But there's also gunfire, driving through checkpoints, a bombing, electricity rationing, hiding in the dark, worries for a girlfriend, relatives forced to move in because of safety concerns.... They "feel like you're in prison," Hayder says at his lowest point.The guys come from middle-class Shi'ite, Christian, Kurdish and mixed families. And although due to bureaucratic fumblings the filmmakers--New Yorker Laura Winter and fellow Columbia J-School grad Ivan O'Mahoney--were only able to get cameras to males, a steady stream of mothers, sisters, aunts and nieces talk on camera, along with male family members and classmates at the all-boy high school.
You won't soon forget any of the teens; but the breakout star is Mohammad, a goofy and short only child raised by his single mom.
He runs his mouth constantly and films everything--his jiggling dancing, attempts to befriend a pigeon and then a mouse, eating with his family, teasing his precocious niece (she gives as good as she gets--on his 18th birthday she gleefully tells the camera, "God willing, for his next birthday Mohammad will be taller.")
He captures historic moments, too. We see his family reacting to the trial of Saddam Hussein, and then his execution (his fiery grandmother, for one, firmly believes in an eye for an eye).
And after Ali, who's his best friend, is forced to move away from Baghdad because of worries over safety, Mohammad whispers--almost therapeutically--to us in English as he lies in bed, speaking of his loneliness and own fears for his country.
It speaks to the intimacy Baghdad High creates that it was only when the teens tried out their English that I was reminded most of the film is in Arabic.
You forget you're reading subtitles; you're sucked in by the shaky, close-up shots and feel a part of their world. You want to talk to the teens, comfort and help them--and you feel like you could. When one of the teens kisses the camera good-bye, I reflexively wanted to hug him back.
It's an amazing aspect of the movie; it made a Western audience, hard-bitten New Yorkers all, not only tear up and lean forward to catch every word, but also feel viscerally connected to Iraqis. As our neighbors, our friends, our sons, ourselves.
But the movie isn't just notable because of how we, the audience, reacts to it. Ali and his parents were there for the screening; his father said afterwards he thought the film's importance was both that it "show the suffering of the people," and also because "people are expressing themselves."
And that's the root of the film. People--four Iraqi teens and their families in this case--got a chance to talk. In the midst of violence and chaos and fear, they spoke into the camera and talked of truth and love and hope.
All we have to do is listen.