Thats the idea behind Baghdad High, a new documentary directed by Laura J. Winter. The movie will be shown Friday, August 2, at the Traverse City Film Festival.
Winter came up with the novel idea of giving four high school boys their own video camera to document one year of their life.
In an email interview from England where she now lives, Winter explained that she wanted to take a fresh perspective on Iraq. She found inspiration from a film titled The Womens Story, which featured two Iraqi women who journeyed around their country and filmed what they saw.
It was very good, but it really struck me right then, that all these documentaries coming out of Iraq were done for or by adults. Iraqi children had not been more than a UN statistic about the dead, kidnapped or injured, Winter wrote. As I watched that film I knew a story about children in Iraq, in Baghdad, was just screaming to be done. I thought of high school students because they would be old enough to be articulate, yet innocent enough to be unbiased, not yet politicized. Plus everyone can sympathize with the troubles and triumphs of being a teenager. Its just that our teens happened to be growing up in a war zone.
Winter herself arrived in Bagdad shortly after the invasion to report and shoot photos for the New York Daily News. After a couple of months, she began to freelance as a field producer for CBS Evening News and 60 Minutes.
Here is her excerpted email interview on Iraq and filmmaking:
NE: You reported on the war from Iraq for the Daily News. Tell me about that experience.
Winter: I was in Iraq from April 2003 through to the end of November of that year. When I arrived in Baghdad the battle was still raging. The city was on fire. If you blew your nose, soot would come out. It was also a desperate time with hordes of looters roaming the streets, stripping all of the government offices of anything valuable. There were street battles at night outside my window. But when the sun rose, it seemed like the fighters just melted away. And everywhere you looked there was a picture of Saddam Hussein. Saddam the iron fisted general. Saddam the well dressed hunter. Saddam the cosmopolitan Arab leader. Saddam the desert sheikh.
I roamed around the palace area, now the Green zone, at will and in my drivers car. I could walk the streets in Faluja. I drove around Sadr City without too much care. And when I felt my spirits were low, I would go to the Hewar Art Gallery to have lunch or tea with the owner.
At the time I left, Saddams sons had been found and killed in a shootout. People were simply waiting to find Saddam so they could close that chapter and move on. There was some terrorism. The use of improvised explosive devices had just started. But it was not in chaos. Despite the depravity, people were positive. Even my driver and translator, both Republican guards who had lost their positions and livelihoods in the army, were hopeful about the future. They were going to start a mobile phone business. One of them had just bought a new car. That was the Iraq I left But then that all changed so fast and so hard.
NE: Did you have any frustrations as a journalist?
Winter: I get frustrated about the lack of resources and respect for intrepid freelance journalists. Im talking about my band of merry news gatherers who, in spite of the lack of insurance, body armor, cash on hand and fair pay (which never seems to keep up with inflation), still get out there in the wilds and get the story, and sometimes do it far better than the big boys. And I dont think that situation is going to get any better, especially when economically times are very tough. So what does that mean? Less and less coverage from fewer voices.
NE: Did your attitudes shift toward the war or the Iraqi people while you were there?
Winter: I dont think my attitudes toward the Iraqi people ever changed. You see, when I enter a conflict area, Im entering a foreign country that simply happens to be experiencing the most heartrending tragedy a people can suffer - war. The only thing comparable to it is 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Good people suffering from inconceivable and, I mean really beyond imagination, horrific tragedies.
The thing is, no matter how you feel about the invasion and occupation, for the Iraqis, their unnatural disaster started in March 2003 and continues to this day. No matter whether you are red, blue or purple, can you imagine what it means to have lost a million people? Im talking about civilians. I cant, but I try. So try and see that cold number this way: the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the past five years would be like all of the people in Detroit being killed in five years.
So what may have changed inside me is perhaps the emergence of an intense feeling of being terribly ineffectual. At the same time I try desperately not to borrow trouble, but I have a heightened sense of trepidation for my Iraqi and my fellow American friends who are there.
NE: How did you choose the four boys in the film?
Winter: I asked my former translator and driver [in Iraq] where he went to high school, knowing he was from Karada District, a mixed middle class neighborhood east of the Tigris. He attended Tariq bin Ziad High School for Boys. The principal of the school and a science teacher introduced our Iraqi staff to eight boys. After four months, by February 2007, four boys remained dedicated to the film. It was really more by chance than design that we ended up having a Shia, a Sunni-Shia, a Christian and a Kurd.
NE: Why didnt you choose any girls?
Winter: The short and easy answer is, that while we had a girls school on board and families who wanted to participate, the then minister of education said, No.
NE: I read that you instructed the boys not to film violence. Did you feel that it skewed the reality of their world since it was something they had to live with?
Winter: I think you misunderstood the directive. We did not instruct them not to film violence. What we instructed them to do was to film only in their school, homes or places their parents approved, such as the car. What they were told was that if anyone attempted to play the part of a news cameraman, they would be kicked off the project.
I do not think these directives skewed reality in the least. You see, they are not paid news cameramen, and that was not the point of the film. Would they normally be running down the street toward a firefight to film it? No. Would they run toward a bombing, knowing that there could be a secondary explosion or a group of soldiers, who could start, at any second, firing wildly into the crowd, to film a piece of video? No. Thats not real life for any Iraqi civilian.
Being in your bedroom, unable to focus your mind on studying for the next days Arabic test because different armed groups are having a battle a block away, which could come to your door at any minute Now thats real Baghdad life. Confinement, anxiety, powerlessness, fear, apathy. But what there is, although perhaps not in equal measure, but its there, especially with the kids, who have not quite taken on the responsibilities of adults, is happiness, friendship, ambition, and hope and love.
NE: One of the big phrases in journalism is Show, dont tell. What were some of the telling moments in the film?
Winter: Every moment has something telling. Every half-minute counts. Whether it is Ali and Mohammed Raed mucking around, acting like terrorists, or Anmar being afraid that if the wrong people find out he is a Christian, they might just kill him, or Hayders mother being exasperated with the state of her city, they are all telling.
NE: The film isnt political, but did it have an underlying lesson?
Winter: I think this film reflects on almost any place that is in the midst of a violent conflict. While militants are shooting at each other, blowing each other up and terrorizing the population to force their allegiance, people go on living. Kids try to go to school. Birthdays are celebrated. Teens hang out and dance to music. Exams are taken. All of these are normal things, all in the midst of incredible violence. Really this film is about the triumph of the collective human spirit.
NE: As you look at Iraq and the upcoming election, what kind of advice would you give to the presidential candidates?
Winter: Take care. Dont be drawn into simple solutions. And dont make promises you cant or shouldnt keep. Were all listening around the world. Dont leave too soon, but dont stay too long. Many Iraqis have told me that their biggest fear is what will happen after U.S. troops leave. The words bloodbath and massacre have been used.
Its great that our candidates meet with the U.S. military and our men and women serving there. It is equally heartening to see them meet different Iraqi faction leaders behind the walls of the Green Zone. But I want more.
I know it is simply too dangerous for the candidates to go out on the street in Baghdad and talk to people in any meaningful sense. But I challenge them, Obama and McCain, to think out of the box here and go to Jordan and listen to Iraqi refugees talk about what they need to happen before they feel it is safe enough for them to return home. I want them to listen to and speak with normal regular Iraqi people, not just the stakeholders.
NE: How much say do you feel the Iraqis themselves should have about the American presence? And what do you believe is the prevailing opinion?
Winter: I think Iraqis should most definitely have the overwhelming say about the American presence. But they should also have a say about the presence of armed militias and corrupt officials. All of this is a step-by-step process. It cant really be rushed. And it cant be done on the cheap either.
NE: If people miss your movie at the Film Festival, is it possible to see it sometime in the future?
Winter: HBO is broadcasting our film on August 4 at 9 p.m. There are no plans for it to be released theatrically, although, I have to admit that is my true dream.
Laura Winter and Ali Shadman, one of the boys in the film, warmly welcome your own questions at the Traverse City Film Festival. Theyll appear at the showing of Baghdad High: Friday at noon at Lars Hockstad Auditorium, and at 9 p.m. at the Old Towne Playhouse.