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'Baghdad High': A Study of Life in War's Shadow

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Little by little, HBO -- yes, HBO -- has carved a niche as the TV home of some of the most compelling programs about the Iraq war. From the gripping 2006 documentary "Baghdad ER" to the epic (if little watched) Marines-in-combat miniseries, "Generation Kill," the network best known for Larry David and "Sex and the City" has shown viewers a few things about Iraq that they're not seeing anywhere else.

Now comes "Baghdad High" (airing Monday night at 9), which does no harm to HBO's burgeoning war cred. The 90-minute documentary doesn't say much about the larger issues facing Iraq, but it does capture some small and captivating human stories.

"High" focuses on a group largely ignored in previous works about the war, teenagers. Its point of view is literally that of four Iraqi high-school boys, who spent a year pointing borrowed video cameras at their friends, family, school and themselves. The finished documentary is the distillation of some 300 hours of self-taped material.

The film's time frame is the boys' senior year, 2006-07, which turns out to have been a particularly harrowing period. As the boys trudge through classes (at a school that appears to have all the charm of an abandoned prison), the world just beyond their school walls smolders and quakes. Saddam Hussein is tried and executed. Civil war looms. Violence is a given. Responding to the mounting chaos, the United States ships in an additional 30,000 troops.

The film's director-producers, Ivan O'Mahoney and Laura Winter, were also fortunate to have found some appealing subjects. The four buddies -- Ali, Hayder, Anmar and baby-faced Mohammad -- are thoughtful, polite, likable kids. Although they come from Sunni, Shia, Christian and Kurdish families, there isn't a hint of sectarian rivalry or animosity.

Indeed, they mostly struggle to be like teenagers everywhere. They listen to American rap music (one boy while studying the Koran), play basketball and soccer, roughhouse or just hang out (curiously absent from their lives, or perhaps just the film: girls, girlfriends, or any sense of their romantic interests).

Problem is, they happen to live in what one boy describes as "the most dangerous city on Earth." You don't see much of Iraq's violence in "High," but you surely feel its gravity and their dread. Every one of the boys' activities, no matter how mundane, seems to be a terrifying adventure. Visiting a friend who lives a few hundred yards away involves running a potential gantlet of kidnappers and snipers; getting to school on time means navigating military checkpoints. Before a big exam, teachers frisk their students for explosives.

Early on, Anmar grows anxious that his girlfriend (never seen) hasn't called or texted him in a few days. His hangdog look suggests he's been dumped. But it soon becomes clear that he isn't worried that she has met someone else. He's worried that she's been murdered or kidnapped.

These larger forces keep pressing in, twisting the kids' lives this way and that. With Iraq's economy a shambles, Hayder's father loses his job, bringing financial hardship to his family. Relatives from other parts of the country take refuge in some of the boys' homes, testing everyone's patience. Ali and his family go the other way. They flee Baghdad to live with relatives in the peaceful Kurdish north, leaving Ali's best friend, Mohammad, heartbroken ("Why, God?" he asks). Later, a bored Ali checks in from his pleasant new home in Erbil, saying he misses "the action" in Baghdad.

The filmmakers reserve much of their screen time for Mohammad. It's clear why: A short, roly-poly kid with an endearing smile, Mohammad has the most expressive emotional range of the four friends, from his despair over Ali's departure to his tender concern for a household mouse he "adopts."

Aside from his physical survival, the big question for Mohammad is whether his mother can track down his long-absent dad. She needs his signature on nationality papers for their son. As this subplot unfolds, it becomes apparent that more than just record-keeping is at stake; the papers will enable Mohammad to go to college and to get a passport -- in essence, to have a chance at a future.

Late in the film, the tone shifts as the boys begin to stress out over their final exams. Failure means they'll have to repeat their senior year, a prospect that seems to fill them with almost as much anxiety as a roadside bomb. In fact, viewers will likely watch this concluding passage with a sense of relief. Worrying about tests and grades, after all, seems normal, the kind of stuff teenagers should be preoccupied with.

Indeed, the tests offer some of the few slivers of hope in "Baghdad High." By the end of this grueling and extraordinarily eventful year, they enable the boys to consider, for the first time, not just today, but tomorrow. For these young Iraqis, it seems like a precious luxury. And as this notable documentary suggests, in Iraq that counts as progress.

"Baghdad High" airs Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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