Adel is just like many guys his age. The dark-haired, spaghetti-thin, 23-year-old engineering student hangs out with his friends, plays in a rock band and dreams hazily about the future.
But his dreams often slide into nightmares, and that future hangs heavy with the threat of imminent death.
Adel lives in Iraq and is one of three young men profiled in “Hometown Baghdad,” an Internet documentary series that seems to have struck a chord with the YouTube generation. The collection of two- to four-minute episodes at www.hometownbaghdad.com, with new episodes uploaded three times weekly, reportedly has received 2 million-plus hits from more than 100 countries.
But what makes “Hometown Baghdad” different from the barrage of news reports from the region is that Adel—and fellow “stars” dental student Saif and med student Ausama—are Muslim but don’t care to be defined by their religion, politics or the violence raging around them. In the episode appropriately titled “Symphony of Bullets,” Adel—to the accompaniment of Bach—angrily mourns what now qualifies as Baghdad’s war-is-the-new-peace normalcy.
“I was going to meet friends in college to prepare for the exams,” says Adel, filmed in an extreme close-up. “I couldn’t get out today. I think the reason is ... why don’t you hear for yourself?” He turns the camera to the window as a hailstorm of gunfire echoes through the streets.
Such moments offer a glimpse into a society few knew existed: young Iraqis who are clinging to a global, middle-class identity while the world around them crumbles into chaos.
And that is exactly what New York’s Chat the Planet, a firm specializing in producing video designed to spark dialog between young people of different cultures, had in mind when it developed “Hometown Baghdad” 18 months ago. The company, which had previously made documentaries for South African and Australian TV as well as the half-hour “Baghdad Two-Way,” a conversation about the war for MTV’s “Choose or Lose” 2004 election-year coverage, wanted to dig deeper into the Iraq war from a young person’s perspective.
“We were trying to find some format that would let us tell those untold stories of the war,” says associate producer Michael DiBenedetto. That led to the idea of following around a group of young people that viewers their age around the world could identify with. Despite the dangers, it wasn’t too hard to find volunteers; about 50 people sent in audition tapes.
“They feel really underrepresented,” DiBenedetto says of the young Iraqis who contacted the company. “They are frustrated that the images of them are victims, corpses or insurgents. A lot of them feel a bond with the rest of the world, like our music, and watch TV and movies. They say, `We have the same kind of hopes as you. The only difference is that we’re in the middle of a war zone.’”
While “Hometown Baghdad” could have made a compelling film or TV production—a compilation of clips for a TV documentary may be in the works—DeBenedetto liked the immediacy of going online. “It’s where things can spread with word-of-mouth buzz,” he says. Chat the Planet used many of the same Iraqi filmmakers who helped with “Baghdad Two-Way,” including director Ziad Turkey (director of photography on “Underexposure,” claimed to be the first uncensored feature shot in postwar Baghdad) and producer Fadi Hadid (a member of the Najeen Group, an artists collective)—people who know the lay of the land and understand the dangers. For example, Chat the Planet had two women in mind to be part of the cast, but Turkey and Hadid said doing so could endanger all involved.
DiBenedetto says that, despite the war, the crew hasn’t run into much opposition while filming, partly because the filmmakers are careful to shoot surreptitiously. But there was a little trouble on this side of the ocean.
DiBenedetto says about 80 hours of footage shipped from Iraq got held up at U.S. customs. “They’d pulled it because they saw it was about young people in Baghdad,” he recalls. “They thought they were terrorists.”