2008 Tribeca Film Fest Review: Baghdad High
One of the most talked about films at this year's Tribeca Film Festival is "Baghdad High" a documentary about-no, not about the Iraq war-four high school seniors who spent a full calendar year keeping video diaries of their daily lives.
Four boys: Anwar, a Christian, Ali, a Kurd, Haydar, a Shiite, and Mohammed, both Sunni and Shiite. They are all friends, and they all share a common concern-graduating high school.
Against a backdrop of gunfire in the distance, Haydar studies. Ali is the one who has to go under his house to set the gas when the power goes out at his house. Anwar's girlfriend has gone missing and he's worried about her safety. Mohammed is just funny. In fact, much of the film turns out to be wildly entertaining, but in a heartwarming way. When Mohammed introduces us to his little cousins at a backyard barbeque, an explosion in the distance is heard, and when everyone jumps in fright it is Mohammed that has the bright eyed expression of that was cool as he blurts out, "Allah is gracious!" in Arabic. But Anwar is on the roof of his house and sees that the explosion was the local gas station, which now billows tons of black smoke up into the otherwise peacefully blue sky. These moments of immediate action are few and far in between however, which leaves most of the time to allow us to get to know the boys.
They all have their personalities, too. Anwar totally loves himself. Ali totally loves his friends and his family. Haydar totally loves to listen to Tupac and Britney Spears on his computer. Mohammed totally loves to make you, the viewer, laugh until you get tears. When the realization occurs to him that he might possibly fail his final exam, preventing him from graduating, he lies in bed one night and laments over the fact that it's not so bad, because "in America, when you turn 18, they kick you out of the house, and you have to get married and sort your life out." Ali's parents eventually move to the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, which is essentially free of war violence, and as he walks through an area of lounging young people not unlike a scene at Golden Gate and Central Park, he admits that it's boring him to death. "In Baghdad," he says with nostalgia, "there was an action element. You could walk down the street and be shot or blown up by a roadside bomb."
Where "Baghdad High" prevails in its attempt to make you forget at times how dangerous their situation is, it also triumphs in hitting you with how tremendous these human connections are. Mohammed and Ali in particular have absolutely beautiful families (Mohammed's mother is especially fun on camera). When Ali's family is forced to flee from their neighborhood and out of Baghdad, he visits with Mohammed, his best friend, one last time. The two of them share a moment that's so loving and tender, it suddenly feels criminal to be sitting in a movie theatre and enjoying it while at the same time reality suggests that they may never see each other again. And it is here, in the truth that this is indeed a documentary and not a fictional movie, that feeling empowered to laugh and cry with these exceptional boys is the only means by which we can do them justice. For 80 minutes, we don't get any celebrity narration, just a few black card captions to help identify where in the year the boys are and to move the story along. And when it's over, when Haydar says with sad eyes that he won't be filming any more and Mohammed apologizes for boring us with his useless diary, you suddenly realize (and hope) that they're out there somewhere, happy and safe. Co-Directors Ivan O'Mahoney and Laura Winter may not know what kind of a gem they have on their hands.
See the interview with film directors Ivan O'Mahoney and Laura Winters
My Grade: A
Rated R, Running time: 82 minutes
Starring: Ali, Anwar, Haydar, Mohammed
Directed by Ivan O'Mahoney and Laura Winter
Distributed in the USA by HBO