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'Baghdad High' Directors Discuss Their Film From The Tribeca Film Fest

Simbarashe Simbarashe
May 2nd, 2008 10:57am EDT

Baghdad HighThe first impression you get from Ivan O'Mahoney and Laura Winters, the directors of "Baghdad High" is that they just might be filmmakers.

O'Mahoney, with his curly mop top and inquisitive eyes, his Irish accent and the way he walks as if he exudes a confidence that is nothing more or less than precise, and his counterpart Winters, who engages people with a forward pleasantness that makes you swear you know her from somewhere else, are together such a compatible pair that the impression is hard to shake.

At the Tribeca Press Office I met both of them for the first time; Winters entered first and looked at me with such a familiar smile that I felt embarrassed that I forgot who she was. We had never before met. Yet, as soon as she shook my hand, she started the sort of small talk that you often engage in with people you have known for a while--like coworkers. It wasn't until Ivan entered that I realized that she might be a filmmaker, and it wasn't until the three of us had formally introduced ourselves (as I said, Winters had jumped right into conversation with me) that I realized I was talking to the very people I was set to interview. I bring this up because through their corresponding personalities, there is something truly accessible about their documentary, "Baghdad High", about four Iraqi high school seniors who keep video diaries of their daily lives for a full calendar year. Winters is extremely human in her thoughts and approach, whereas O'Mahoney is more diplomatic. Together, they both share a love and concern for the people of Iraq that is the main foundation for choosing to make this film.

How did the idea of doing video diaries in "Baghdad High" come about?
Ivan O'Mahoney: I had some affinity with [Iraq] because I had just done a film there; a BBC project, and I was, not too keen to go back to Iraq. I was keen to go back to the story and do it properly, but I felt going back to Iraq would be fairly suicidal. It was getting really, really bad. And once we had decided [to do "Baghdad High"], once we had zoomed in on a high school as a device of telling the story of teenagers in Iraq, we then realized that in order for us to do this in a way that was safe for the students, we couldn't really be there with Western camera crews, or even Iraqi camera crews because it would draw too much attention to them. So that was how the idea was born of training the kids to do their own filming.

How did you sneak the cameras and the tapes to them in the first place?
Laura Winters: We didn't really sneak it to them. Because we were with the BBC, we were able to send the cameras via their news bureau there along with the tapes. We had Iraqi crew that were already there on the ground. We got the principal of the school involved and brought him to London along with our assistant producers and we trained them there on to use the cameras and set up shots. We were also able to tell them about the kind of story we were looking for and the type of kids we were trying to find, so when they went back to Iraq, they were able to train the kids themselves on how to use those cameras.

How did you get in contact with the school?
Laura: I had been to Iraq before as a reporter from April 2003 until December of that year, and of course while I was there I had Iraqi employees. I had these two in particular that were brothers-one was a driver and the other was a translator, and I knew that they had grown up in a very mixed neighborhood in Baghdad called Karrada. There's a lot of Shiites, and a lot of Christians living there. So I asked the translator, "Where did you go to high school?" And when he told me, I asked him to call his brother and see if he would get in touch with the principal there. At first the school was very suspicious that someone they didn't know was coming around asking for him. But they ultimately decided to trust him and the principal called me while I was in London and were able to communicate directly.

Laura Winters and Ivan O'Mahoney

Bagdad High Directors: Laura Winters and Ivan O'Mahoney


Did you have a schedule on when you'd expect to receive the tapes back from the boys?
Laura: Well, we're talking about a very dangerous place in the world. The logistics of doing this film was very difficult. Sometimes there were curfews in Iraq, and many times we'd have to rely on people we knew from the BBC or other reporters who were coming out of Baghdad to sort of smuggle these tapes in their backpacks, and I'd have to meet them at the airport. Sometimes, we would have to wait weeks to get the tapes and once it was an entire month because there were so many curfews…if there was a curfew, you couldn't even drive to the airport. I'd say that the best times were when we were receiving tapes on a rotation of every two weeks.

To that end, how was it when you received the first batch of tapes?
Laura: The first time, we were like kids on Christmas Day!

Ivan: In sort of selecting the kids that we were going to follow for this film, we were kind of anxious about the first material we were getting back because that was pretty much going to decide whether this film would get made or not. So when we got the first tapes, we were blown away by their first efforts. They were already shooting a lot of the sequences that would eventually make it into the film out of the 300-plus hours of tape we'd received. They just got it immediately. But it really brought it home to us that they really live life under different circumstances. They're trying to study, but in the meantime you hear all this gunfire going off in the background. It's a very different point of view from simply watching a reporter on television with the war going on in the distance.

Were there any tapes lost?
Laura: There were no tapes lost…

Ivan: Not that we know of… [laughs]

Were there any ground rules for the boys in shooting video?
Ivan: They were under very strict security rules when they were filming. They were told not to act as news cameramen. They were not allowed to film in the street. They could only film at school or at home, in secured environments. So the number of times when we saw footage that made us go, "Oh my gosh, are they going to be all right?" was actually quite limited because they had to keep a low profile.

Laura: We really wanted to kids to go after the things in their lives that were most important to them. We told them to film the things that they were passionate about, tell us their stories, and from that we were able to piece together storylines. For Mohammed, there was that situation with his father, and for Haydar, it was his music. The only times we ran into problems in the editing room was when it came to dealing with sensitivity; like, it's really not a nice thing [for Haydar] to say, "My family's so poor that we have to take the gas out of the car." [pause] …that's tough, because that's a dishonor to his family. It's tough for Mohammed to talk about his dad. He didn't talk about it very often so what you see is pretty much what we got because it was so heart wrenching to him.

Was there any material you got from the boys that you absolutely couldn't use?
Laura: Yes. Anwar filmed Suddam Huseein's execution off the internet from start to finish. We made a decision not to include that in film.

Ivan: We had a big debate about whether or not that should go into the film.

Laura: Yeah, it was one of those things where to see it, it just gets you. But we had to ask ourselves, does it help our story? No.

Was there anything you would have liked to include in the film that didn't make the final cut?
Ivan: [pause] I'd say that sequence [laughs] . It was a good discussion to have because editorially it could get pretty sticky, but at the end of the day we didn't want to endanger anybody by putting stuff in that wouldn't be in their best interest.

Do you know what the graduation rate was for that year's senior class?
Laura: That is a great question!

Ivan: I don't know.

One of the things that really surprised me in the film was Haydar failing the English portion of his final exam.
Laura: If there was one thing that we could further explore, for me it would have to be that, because Haydar's English is fantastic. I speak to Haydar on the phone, and I can speak to him like I'm speaking to you, and he will understand every singly exact word and tell you which ones he doesn't understand. That boy did not fail his English exam; I'm convinced of it. And I'm convinced that his exam was switched out.

Ivan: Yeah, there were lots of allegations of corruption.

Laura: Anwar said it himself: "I study on cold days, I study on hot days, I study on violent days." The kids were smart. It just doesn't make sense. It's a survivalist economy-do whatever you have to do to prepare your family to get out.

Have you been in touch with the boys since the end of production?
Laura: I'd say that I communicate with them almost every day. Since I've been at the festival, it's been a bit tough with all the screenings and meetings we have to go to. But when I'm at home back in London, I usually chat with at least two of them online on a daily basis. They're incredibly internet savvy.

Baghdad High is up for an award at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. How would it feel to win?
Laura: It'd be insane! Christmas for the rest of the year!

How do you think it would be for the boys?
Laura: I don't know how much it would mean to them. I don't know if they understand what this is all about. Winning. We tried to get them Visas to screen the film in London and we got them as far as Jordan before the British government denied their Visas. They were devastated; there were tears all around. But I'm happy to report that along with the help of HBO, we managed to get Ali and his family to New York. He literally just arrived by train at Penn Station last night at midnight, and he's going to the premier screening. It will be interesting to watch him. He's not going to be there to watch the film as much as he will be there to watch the audience. I don't think they get it-they don't understand how amazing this thing that they created is.

What would you like the audiences to walk away with after seeing this film?
Ivan: Hopefully, that not all Iraqis are extremists, that not all Iraqis are just out to destroy their country. Not all kids hate Americans [laughs]. You know, the kids in Iraq just want to get on with life, like everybody else. And they care much more about very basic things in life, like they want to graduate from school, they want to be safe, they want to have girlfriends, play sports, listen to music. They're just like everybody else and it was very important for us to show that, because if you just look at the headlines about Iraq, you could be forgiven for coming away with the idea that everybody is extreme and radical and out to hurt each other, and it's nonsense. There's a whole generation of kids out there who are not being poisoned by all of this.

Simbarashe
Story by Simbarashe

Starpulse contributing writer

Photo Credits: Tribeca Film Fest