Some documentaries about current events are valuable for the sense they bring to incomprehensible incidents, threading viewers through complicated thickets of competing agendas, murky alliances and quickly shifting circumstances.
“Nowhere to Hide” is not that kind of documentary. A shattering vérité portrait of the disintegration of Iraqi society in the period immediately following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country, this urgent, of-the-moment film doesn’t explain the ensuing chaos as much as plunge viewers into it firsthand, offering a terrifying, ultimately moving portrait of the effects of war, both physical and psychic.
In the case of Iraq, of course, the term “war” could refer to as far back as World War I, when European powers invented the country with little sensitivity to the region’s long-standing tribal and cultural realities. As “Nowhere to Hide” opens, American forces have begun to pull out, leaving a vacuum in their wake. Then, waves of savage and largely unexplained violence begin to ripple throughout the country, as the group known as the Islamic State, or ISIS, along with competing local militias, begins to seize the opportunity to sow mayhem in the form of kidnappings, suicide bombings and random acts of murderous cruelty.
Our guide through this bleak landscape is Nori Sharif, a calm, congenial medic whose emergency room in the small town of Jalawla used to be consumed with such quotidian duties as sewing up stitches or setting broken limbs. “Nowhere to Hide” starts in 2011, when filmmaker Zaradasht Ahmed gives Sharif a small camera so he can film his patients, friends and neighbors — along with his four beguiling children. What Sharif creates is a painful, subjective account of how the U.S. invasion and subsequent fight for power have affected his compatriots, who once led modestly secure and happy lives as shepherds, farmers and laborers, but whose injuries now render them dispossessed and despairing.
Sharif remains a compassionate, relentlessly upbeat observer of the trauma engulfing his town — and the surrounding Diyala province, known as the “triangle of death” because of the violence it has attracted — until he is touched by it himself. Eventually, “Nowhere to Hide” chronicles his efforts to keep his family safe, which include moving more than a dozen times. The great gift of Ahmed’s film, and the way he has collaborated creatively with his subject, is that viewers can no longer read about faraway events in central Iraq as distant or abstract. Sharif’s story has fused with our own, his victories, setbacks and love for his family informing what before might have been routine stories or bad news to avoid. “Nowhere to Hide” makes it not just impossible, but unconscionable, to turn away.
Unrated. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains graphic wartime violence and gore. In Arabic with subtitles. 86 minutes.