Hayder is trying to memorize “I’m a Slave 4 U.” He bobs his head as he sings along with the Britney track he’s downloaded to his computer: “All you people look at me like I’m a little girl. / Well, did you ever think it be okay for me to step into this world?” He looks like a lot of other aspiring songwriters, methodical, hardworking, determined to learn this perfect pop product. But Hayder’s not like most other kids his age. He’s living in Baghdad in fall of 2006, trying to survive his senior year at Tariq bin-Ziad High School for Boys.
Hayder’s also atypical in that he’s agreed to carry a digital video camera and record his experiences. He and three classmates provide much of the footage for Baghdad High, the slightly edited version of Ivan O’Mahoney and Laura Winter’s Boys of Baghdad High, premiering on HBO, 4 August 2008. The rest of the documentary is taped by a small film crew who follow the boys from home to class and back again. The selection of participants is not precisely random: Hayder is Shia, Anmar is Christian, Ali is Kurdish, and Mohammad’s parents are Shia and Sunni. But despite these differences, so meaningful for those adults striving to put together a government, the boys’ experiences are remarkably similar. They make jokes, watch TV, trudge through homework, and worry about the explosions down the street.
Their school, the film notes in explanatory text, is located “near the heart of the war zone.” The principal observes that their work is “average or below average, it seems the students are not very motivated.” And no wonder. Though the boys are told to keep focused on the national exams they have to pass at the end of the year, they are faced with daily stresses: babysitting, chores, gunfire down the street. They do their best to study, but they are 17 years old, after all. Mohammad’s mother is proud of him: “I want you to graduate,” she smiles, “Then you can be what you want to be.” She tells the camera, “He doesn’t use his cell phone for silly things like other boys,” as the scene cuts to Mohammad watching his phone video, some friends dancing wildly, being silly. “He doesn’t waste his time listening to music or watching movies,” she says, smiling serenely. Cut to Mohammad, who confesses, “I always turn on the computer, listen to music, and dance.” To demonstrate, he starts reciting lyrics: “Go ahead now, pull the trigger, killer killer.”
A sweet-faced, short kid who befriends a mouse who lives in the kitchen and takes his share of ribbing at school and on the blacktop where he and his friends play basketball, Mohammad does, for the most part, “behave responsibly,” as his mother believes. He also appreciates that she has been both mother and father to him since his father left the family when Mohammad was only six months old, a point brought home when it comes time for him to register for exams and needs a nationality certificate, papers that can only legally be signed by his father. Mohammad’s mother is resourceful but frustrated dealing with the official bureaucracy, paying bribes along the way. “How many countries,” she asks, “humiliate their citizens this way just to get a passport?”
As she negotiates the paperwork, Mohammad and his friends find themselves repeatedly distracted at school, at home, and in between. Getting ready to leave for school in the morning, Ali hears an explosion, “very, very close to here.” Mohammad, in the car with his mother, notes that when they come to a checkpoint, he has to turn off the camera (better not to try to explain the project or incite suspicions). When it comes time for Islamic studies class, Anmar, being Christian, leaves the room. His friend Zico accompanies him, laughing, “I’m Muslim, but I will also leave,” so they can go outside and play soccer in the dusty courtyard, visions of David Beckham in their heads. After school, Anmar doesn’t have a key to get into his house, so he visits a friend recuperating from an explosion. He shows his wounded leg to the camera, still raw and red. “Honestly,” he says, “I’m pretty unhappy.”
Instructed to focus on their studies, the boys can hardly help but worry: during the school year, Saddam Hussein is convicted and executed, and the U.S. surge begins, so, as Anmar observes, “We can’t go anywhere… the streets are full of Americans and soldiers.” His family talks about moving to Egypt, or maybe Syria or Jordan, “anywhere just to leave Iraq.”
Ali’s family actually moves north to the Kurdish region’s capital, Erbil. He’s glad to leave because it’s dangerous in Baghdad. “Anyone walking around with a mobile phone will be robbed,” he says. He and his friends hear about killings and kidnappings every day. Packing his family’s car for the move, Ali identifies the sound overhead as another Apache helicopter, part of the daily routine he thinks he won’t miss. In Erbil, however, he’s bored. Not only are local tastes and consumption limited (“They only know Michael Jackson here, no one else”), but the “life is slow.” He says he misses “this action element in Baghdad. When you go out of the house, you may get shot by a stray bullet, hit by a bomb. It’s all about action all the time. Here, it’s different. No bombings, nothing, just boring.”
Back in Baghdad, Ali’s best friend Mohammad misses him. Turning 18, Mohammad is deemed a man (during the party with cake, candles, and the “Happy Birthday” song, his sister teases, “Maybe for his birthday next year, he can be taller!” Mohammad celebrates in his bedroom with Hayder, dancing in his new dishdasha: “In Iraq,” Hayder clarifies, “it’s traditional to wear a long white dress after you’ve been circumcised.” Later that night, his face green in the night-vision lens, Mohammad lies in bed and notes that in America, he’d be kicked out at 18, but in Iraq, “You can be 24 and still depend on your family.”
As much as the boys use their cameras to explain their lives to unknown others, they also use them as journals, recording their apprehensions and desires. As they prepare for their exams, they also anticipate the end of their project. The finished film inevitably reshapes their experiences, making drama of their hopes, fears, and bouts of 17-year-old courage. If Baghdad High‘s verité is not exactly hands-off, it is respectful of the kids’ own concerns.
As the year ends, Mohammad thinks about getting his own camera, so he might keep taping. Anmar redoubles his efforts to pass his exams. And Hayder continues to seek inspiration and in music. Inspired by Tupac (“I have to learn two more verses,” he says one night at his desk, “After that, I have to learn two verses of the Koran”), he works on a new song that closes the film, “Situation in My Country”: “I didn’t find any answer to myself,” he raps over the credits. “I keep saying to myself, ‘There’s nothing logical for life.’ / ‘Cause I wake up in the morning and hear just the bomb’s voice.”