How did you "cast" the story for "Baghdad High"?
Normally in documentaries you either find a fantastic character who becomes the reason for making your film, or you have a fantastic subject and you cast great characters. In this case, we couldn't really cast the characters ourselves, because everything was based on whether or not the headmaster of the school could actually trust the parents of the boys not to talk about the project with third parties so that it wouldn't get back to the local militia or anybody who might bring harm to the boys. We started the film with a two month development period to establish whether we could get characters to carry this story for a year. We asked the headmaster to cast a net wide in terms of the boys' backgrounds. He found eight boys, with seven families (one set of twins). After a month, four of the boys dropped out for various reasons and we ended up with the four boys that are in the film. Luckily, we had already decided that those were the four superstars, so we couldn't believe our luck.
Yet their differences didn't seem to play a large role in the story. Was that surprising to you?
It was. I was really thinking that we would get back a lot of politically charged material. But what they were talking about by and large was the violence in general, never really pointing the fingers at one particular group or at each other.
You basically directed the film from London without going back to Iraq. Why, and how did that work?
Because it wouldn't have been dangerous for just us, it would have been incredibly dangerous for our contributors. When you're going to have cameras around four boys for an entire year, it's going to draw attention to them. So we decided that we would train them and see if they could do it themselves, to keep it as low-profile as possible. Even having an Iraqi crew around would draw too much attention. But if they're walking around with tiny little cameras, they could just tell people that they were doing a school project. We hired two Iraqi associate producers who we then brought to London along with the headmaster of the school, and we put the three of them through a training program in the U.K. Then they flew back to Baghdad and we brought the cameras in a different way, through the BBC personnel rotations for their Baghdad bureau. At the school the other kids knew that this was a school project and that it was potentially for international broadcast, but nobody knew the intricate details.
It sounds like a cliché, but the one thing that really seemed to shine through is that kids will be kids will be kids, wherever you put them.
What was your process for watching the film and giving feedback?
There was a constant feed of material which was being flown out of Baghdad through friends, colleagues who were working there and flying back, but mostly through the BBC high-risk team, through their security people, who have a very high rotation level. Laura did the bulk of the first viewing of the material, together with the translator.
We had three hundred hours of tapes, so half of one percent ended up in the film. Sometimes it would take as long as two weeks for me to get tapes from the time that they were shot. So I'd watch them right away to give feedback as quickly as possible. Our assistant would log the tapes and translate them, and I would watch for technique first -- to see the lighting, see if they're handing off their camera to their little cousin, which they did and which was bad, shaky cam in the extreme, like an 8.2 earthquake. I'd write up notes about their filming technique. And then I could confer with my assistant about the content of what's going on with the different story-lines and make notes on that and then send back questions, or things that they might need to pick up, such as interviews with their parents. All of this went through our associate producers. We had no direct contact during the filming.
Watching the footage, were you ever concerned about what was going on in their lives?
The first time that Mohammad talked about how he can't find his father, I became fixated on the screen, looking at his eyes and face and realizing that this kid is just really hurting. Or when he talked about how he's so sad that his best friend Ali is leaving. And you feel for him, because it shouldn't be that this family has to leave Baghdad because they don't feel safe.
What really started to concern us is that at least one or two of the boys could slowly slip into a depression as the year went by. Having that intimate knowledge of somebody's state of mind, and seeing that state of mind rapidly deteriorating, was really concerning. Laura and I have both covered a fair amount of conflicts, but that's something that sticks with you. You're constantly torn between, "God, I want to do something for these people," and how can you do your job when you get too closely involved every time? But when you're there, you can make a rational decision. Here, we couldn't even be with them which made it quite hard as well. All we could do was let them know through our associate producers - and directly, towards the end of the project, when there was more personal contact with them - that we cared and wanted the best for them. But there's no way that you can influence the stuff that these kids were living through.
How did your expectations for the film compare to what what you ended up with?
I didn't think there would be that much humor in the film. It sounds like a cliché, but the one thing that really seemed to shine through is that kids will be kids will be kids, wherever you put them. I didn't expect to get footage back of Hayder singing along to Britney Spears songs and being very serious about it. It reminded me of when I was seventeen, sitting with my first crappy guitar and an old tape recorder, trying to memorize whatever was hot in the charts at the time. Which makes it all the more difficult to deal with when things go pear-shape, and literally go "boom." One moment they're singing along to Britney Spears, the next moment there's a massive explosion outside, and they're talking about whether or not they can even go to school the next morning.
Have the boys seen the film?
Yes, we sent them DVDs to watch in their homes. And Ali and his family came to our premiere at Tribeca.
Ali, the Kurdish boy who flees to Kurdistan, now lives in the United States. At Tribeca, the theater was packed with very vocal high-school students from the Bronx and Brooklyn. The girls in the audience had pretty much decided after ten minutes in the film, that Ali was the cutest so when we said at the Q&A that Ali was there the roof came off and the whole place went bonkers. Girls started throwing their phone numbers at him. He couldn't get to the stage, he was mobbed like a rock star. All the questions were more about whether Ali had a girlfriend rather than what his life was like. And then all of a sudden it got really serious. There were two big lines behind the microphone and one of the kids got up and said he had just signed up for the Marine Corps, and he would probably be in Iraq within three or four months. And he said, "I finally know what life is like behind those walls and what you guys are like, and it's been really, really fantastic." And at that moment I could see Ali beam with of pride, thinking, "Well, at least I've been able to make the difference for one person." It's what we hope to go through when we make films: can you change anybody's preconceived notions? I think the boys were able to do that in a spectacular fashion. But Ali was the only one who got to experience that firsthand.
This was such a collaborative process. We have an American, a Dutch-Irish fellow, with Brits and Americans and Germans and French and some Australians funding it, working with Iraqi adults and kids. And everyone is from different religions and different ethnic backgrounds. And we all can get along. We all produced this amazing film. I think it's probably a piece of work I'm most proud of being a part of -- ever.
2008 Documentary Films Series