At no point during Zaradasht Ahmed’s blistering documentary Nowhere to Hide does anybody express regret for the departure of American soldiers from Iraq. That remains true even though the bulk of the movie is an illustration of the hellish internecine conflict that engulfed the country almost immediately thereafter.
Just as importantly, nobody expresses a desire for a return to the time of Saddam Hussein, even though most of the people shown here had quieter and more prosperous lives, even under his dictatorship. This is a nation that has spent most of its recent history being hurled from one fire into another frying pan.
After a haunting prelude in which a man wanders in a searing desert and worries about his family’s survival, Ahmed flashes back three years to 2011. It shows here as a time of relative happiness for a country scarred by years of war, whose people are hopeful for better times ahead and delighted to be finally experiencing “independence”. (The American rhetoric about being a force of liberation instead of occupation hasn’t carried much water with these Iraqis.)
The setting is Jalawla, a town in Central Iraq situated right in the heart of a war-torn area known as the “Triangle of Death”. Ahmed’s guide into this place is Nori, a nurse at the Jalawla hospital, whom he convinces to take a camera and film what he sees. An avuncular and chatty fellow with a deep reservoir of empathy that survives nearly unscarred no matter what harrowing sights he witnesses, Nori chats up everybody he can find about their lives, hopes, and fears. They’re all happy to talk, from the shepherd boy who sleeps with his flock or the man who, despite having been kidnapped twice by al-Qaeda and crippled, as a result, retains a flinty optimism: “God must like me.”
Through these interviews, Nori helps create a fragmented picture of a community that has already weathered years of fear and brutality, whether from insurgents and terrorists’ deliberate violence or the accidental violence visited on them by the now-departed Americans. Whether chatting happily with strangers or telling sad tales like the war-scarred family with seven widows “and an army of orphans”, Nori hews to a simple principle: “I wish to preserve their memory.”
However, as Nowhere to Hide progresses, the story becomes less about these others and more about Nori himself. Season by season, the Sunni-Shiite strife and other factional disputes already roiling in Iraq intensifies. The physical remnants of those ideological and tribal battles that were barely kept in check during the American occupation appear as burnt and scarred bodies in the car bomb-wracked streets of Jalawla and the rooms of Nori’s now bullet-pocked hospital. As 2013 rolls into 2014, ISIS starts storming across the region, exploiting the factionalized resistance, and sending people like Nori, his wife, and their four children fleeing for their lives.
The later sections of Ahmed’s movie constitute a chilling reminder of what so many families around the world, and particularly in the conflict-scarred crucible of the Middle East, are facing right now: Endless flight with no promise of a safe harbor. Nori’s usually stout optimism begins to fade as they run from one village to the next, calling this latest and most ill-defined war “like an evil witch” on their tail. The change in their circumstances also signals a change in the movie itself, as Nori’s focus narrows from the larger community to his immediate family: “I am documenting myself.”
Even though his children’s spunky cheer doesn’t seem to fade, despite the miserable heat and the cramped conditions of the internally displaced persons camp they ultimately end up in, there’s a fatalistic sadness running through Nowhere to Hide. “It’s a war that tears you to pieces,” Nori says in one reflective moment. “It is difficult to diagnose … you only see the symptoms, but you don’t understand the disease.” The power of Ahmed’s movie lies in large part with his decision to illustrate the war’s symptoms with compassion and understanding, instead of indulging in yet another likely fruitless attempt to comprehend the ever-metastasizing disease that is the Iraq War.