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.