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Baghdad High (2007) - Movie Review

A Novel Idea, A Noble Experiment

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating

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Most Americans--teenagers and adults alike--would have difficulty imagining how difficult it is for a child to grow up in Iraq, a nation plagued by warfare, political, social, religious and economic unrest.

Documentarians Ivan O'Mahoney and Laura Winter give us an eye-opening introduction to the realities of teenage life in Baghdad by presenting four Iraqi lads with digital cameras with which to document their senior year in high school. Baghdad High, cut from the students' footage, is the result of their four-way year-long personal video diary-like shoot.

Who Are The Filmmakers?

Each of the four students comes from a different cultural and religious background. One is Christian, another is Sunni, the third is Shiite and the fourth is Kurd. They're friends, and they share some of their adventures with us when they film. We see them playing basketball, heading for class, being admonished by a demanding teacher. They don't seem to be at war, but they make it very clear to us that they exist within the environment of war.

In their individual diary-like segments, presented for some inexplicable reason with disquieting chartreuse light, they turn their cameras on themselves and, in full face close up head shots, confess their concerns for their families and the future. We get the idea that they, after passing their high school exams, plan to move to greener pastures in the north of the country, away from the constant conflict--bombings, fires, gunshots--that threatens them in Baghdad.

With their cameras, they take us into their homes, and introduce us to their families. We see their mothers preparing food, and sit down to dine with them. We meet relatives who've moved in with them because they've had to give up their own homes. One of the boys assists his father in draining gasoline from the family car, so that the family generator can be fueled. Their lives are, to put it mildly, stressed.

Mohammed And His Mouse

Of the four boys, Mohammed seems to standout--perhaps because he's so much shorter than his peers or perhaps because plays the clown so well. In moments that echo what we've been moved by in other films, Mohammed finds and befriends a white mouse, and he's crushed when his mother finds it, too, and poisons it. In addition to his other woes, Mohammed has the added task--a daunting one--of tracking down his father, whom he's never known, and convincing the man who abandoned him to sign documents that legitimize him so he can graduate from high school and qualify for a passport. It's amazing that he can continue to play the clown with all of that on his shoulders.

Does Good Cause Equal Good Film?

Baghdad High is informative and, in its way, innovative. It's a very good idea, an excellent conceit, an experiment worth doing. And, no doubt, it's been done with the best intentions for a very good cause.

Unfortunately, it isn't a very good film. Why? The footage is undistinguished and rough--not because it was shot secretly or under duress or in adverse conditions, but because the hands holding the cameras weren't skilled and the eyes framing the shots were not those of artists or keen observers. The lead characters, with the possible exception of Mohammed, have little charisma. And, oddly enough, this documentary about surviving a war torn environment, suffers from lack of conflict. In fact, it's only tense moments are when an extremely unappealing and grumpy teacher yells at the boys, when one boy from the vantage point of his rooftop directs his camera at a fire several blocks away and when the boys collectively react to nearby gunshots.

Ultimately, the film fails because it doesn't deliver the drama of the boys-cum-cameramen's difficult situations. That's probably because they didn't have a director in place to call the shots and design the coverage. The editor, credited as Johnny Burke, could only cut what he had--and that just didn't provide enough ammunition for an explosive expose of what it's like for kids--in Iraq or anywhere--to walk through war.

Film Details

  • Release Date: July, 2008 on HBO
  • Runtime: 88 mins.
  • Parents Guide:Add content advisory for parents
  • Country: UK/USA/France
  • Language:Arabic/English/Kurdish
  • Filming Locations: Baghdad, Iraq
  • Company: Arte/HBO
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