'Baghdad High' Depicts Teen Lives Defined by War A new documentary features the stories of four boys in their senior year of high school in Baghdad. The students — one Kurdish, one Christian, one Shia and one mixed Sunni and Shia — shot footage of their families, friends and teachers to craft the documentary, a portrait of adolescence in a time of war.
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'Baghdad High' Depicts Teen Lives Defined by War

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LYNN NEARY, host

Right now, ask a teenage boy what he likes, and he might say rap music, cell phones, hanging out with friends, talking to his girlfriend. But what if all this takes place against a backdrop of gunfire, kidnappings and car bombs? In the HBO documentary, "Baghdad High," two filmmakers gave video cameras to four teenage boys in Baghdad.

The boys spent their senior year in a Baghdad high school filming their families, friends and teachers, often using the camera as a confessional for the frustrations of living through a war. Today, we talk to one of the directors of the film, and with Ali, one of the young men featured in the documentary.

If you have questions about what life is like for a teen in Baghdad, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, and our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Laura Winter is co-director of "Baghdad High" and she joins us now from our bureau in New York City. Good to have you with us, Laura.

Ms. LAURA WINTER (Co-Director, "Baghdad High"): Thank you. I'm very happy to be here.

NEARY: Maybe you can tell us how this project came about in the first place?

Ms. WINTER: Well, it came about because I've been a newspaper reporter before in Baghdad, and I was there in 2003, and I spent some time in Afghanistan, and I hadn't been back to Baghdad for awhile. And I really wanted to get back to that story. But you always are faced with, how do you do that? I had an opportunity to pitch story ideas to make a documentary.

But again, so many documentaries have come out of Iraq that it's kind of tough to find that new sort of thing, that new way of looking at that story. And so it sort of occurred to me that, you know, through watching so many other documentary films, that the one place we haven't really gone to, which is probably the most important, is Iraq's future.

And that really is the youth in Iraq. We haven't heard from them. We don't really hear from them. We hear from them as statistics, from the UN human rights' reports or the number of killed. And even then, you know, we don't really know very much about what they're thinking or saying or doing, or what their life is like. And they are the future that we talk about so much, and they're the ones that, you know, essentially we need to understand and help.

NEARY: How did you find this school and these particular students?

Ms. WINTER: I found this school because, when I was working Iraq before, of course, I had a translator and driver. And I keep in touch with them all the time. And so I knew that my translator was from a mixed neighborhood, from Karrada district, and there are Christians and Sunna (ph) and Shia and, you know, Kurds and - it's got a lot of different kinds of people.

And so I asked him, well, where did you go to high school? And he said, well, I went to Tariq bin Ziad High School for Boys. And so I sent somebody there to go track down the principle of the school. And a wonderful relationship began from there.

NEARY: And we should say that these four boys were all - one what Shiite, one was Sunni, there was a Kurd, and I'm forgetting the fourth one was...

Ms. WINTER: Christian.

NEARY: Was Christian. So we got the range of people in Iraq. Which was very interesting, I thought, because we don't always think of that range.

Ms. WINTER: We don't always think about that - well, we do think of that range, but we don't think about it in the positive way...

NEARY: Right.

Ms. WINTER: Of how it actually really is in Iraq. We think about, you know, Sunna and Shia as folks that are just going at each other, clearing out, you know, Shia from Sunna area, cleaning out Sunna from Shia areas. And yes, that does definitely happen, and had happened during the making of this film.

But what we don't see is what is essentially the Iraq that I knew when I first got there, and the Iraq that many Iraqis want to have, which is a multicultural, multi-religious, multiethnic society. And there are pockets of that left and that is where we went.

NEARY: Well I'd like to bring in one of the students who's featured in the film now, Ali. He's with his dad, Dr. Saman (ph). And we're identifying Ali only by his first name out of concern for the safety of his family in Iraq. Ali, are you there?

Mr. ALI ("Baghdad High"): Yeah, I'm here.

NEARY: Good to have you.

Mr. ALI: Thanks.

NEARY: Now, what was this experience like for you? When you boys all got the cameras, you all seemed a little giddy with the power that the camera was giving to you to take pictures.

Mr. ALI: Well, first of all, I like that idea. You know, it was like something new experience that was, like, so cool and...

NEARY: What did other kids think about it?

Mr. ALI: My friends, like, the four guys? Three guys?

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. ALI: They liked it so much, you know. We've always talk about it and you know, give looking and new things like how to take shots and stuff.

NEARY: Yeah. Now, I know that you are living in the United States now. Have you stayed in touch with your friends in Baghdad?

Mr. ALI: Yeah, kind of. You know, there's a large difference between the time here and there, so I'm not really so much connected with them. But by Internet we connect like to each other.

NEARY: Yeah. Because you had a really strong friendship with I think it was Mohammed. Is that right?

Mr. ALI: Yeah.

NEARY: Yeah, and that was a very sweet part of the film. Let me ask you about that, Laura. You showed this wonderful friendship between Ali and Mohammed and it was so sad when you had - when they had to part. Let me ask you first, Ali. Was it very sad for you when the two of you had to leave each other?

Mr. ALI: Yes, so much. You know, a lot of people going out of their houses and so upsets when you leave all your friends, leave your house, your school, you know.

NEARY: Laura, let me go back to Laura for a moment and just ask her about what was part of the focus of this, you know, that you ended up following the story of Ali and Mohammed and their friendship and really illustrating how difficult it is for these kids, because Ali's family eventually moved north. They are Kurdish. They moved north. They had to leave the city.

Ms. WINTER: I think what Ali is probably trying to tell you is that, it's kind of like - it's difficult to even put it in words. They've known each other since they were little kids. They have been going to grade school, middle school and then most of high school together. And so, for them, to part is kind of like losing your family member. Mohammed was over at Ali's house almost every day, wasn't he?

Mr. ALI: Yeah.

Ms. WINTER: You know, and they are goofing around and they are hanging out and they get to be kids and all of a sudden, from - Mohammed his brother basically is leaving, the person that he spends all of his time with and shares all of his secrets and talks about girls and music and, you know, joshes around with.

So it was really depressing and heartbreaking, and yet that is Iraq. That is what - it does happen. People have to move and they have to go to places that are safer and there are those - you know, there are people who are left behind.

NEARY: Yeah, and something else that I think the film illustrated very poignantly, too, was the violence that goes on on a kind of regular basis and the fear that these kids felt.

Ms. WINTER: It's every day, and I mean, Ali, I think, really illustrated it so wonderfully when he walks out and he stands there with the camera and there is a helicopter flying overhead and there is gunfire nearby, and he's just standing there going, I just don't know if I'm going to school today.

I don't know what my friends are doing. I can't find them on the phone. I have no idea if school is even open today because there is a bomb that just went off. And that is something that they do have to deal - and that is something that parents also have to deal with. They have to sort of decide, well, do I let my boy or my girl go to school?

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. WINTERS: Well, maybe not today.

NEARY: And I was actually surprised they did go to school that day, I think. And I was surprised that they actually did head out to school.

Ms. WINTER: Isn't it interesting? Because you know, we would, you know, we stay home from snow days. You know how it is in Washington, D.C.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WINTER: Right, you get an inch and you're at home. If there are any listeners there in Chicago, I went to Edison Township High School and we never got a snow day. It was awful, right? We always had to go to school. But for them, education is so important because they know that they have to do this.

They have to learn their maths and their science and their languages and their history. Otherwise, they are just sunk as a nation. And so even though it is dangerous, I think parents really want their kids to go to school. When they've got that sort of window of peace that they'll take them to school in their cars.

NEARY: We're talking about the documentary "Baghdad High." If you've any questions about what life is like for a teenager in Baghdad, any questions for the filmmaker, give us a call. The number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org.

And Ali, I wanted to ask you this, and Laura, you can also join in and help him out with this if you like. One thing that was very intenerating is that the boys - you boys seemed to use the camera as a diary, as a way to talk about your feelings about what was going on. Is that true?

Mr. ALI: Yeah, that was the idea. That was the idea that we have to show our feelings, how we feel at this situation, how the people feel about that life, you know.

Ms. WINTER: I think one of the directions that I gave, and this really kind of comes, I think, from my journalism training and also being a newspaper reporter and also a radio reporter for years, is that, you know, we always try and bring those things back to our audience.

And something that is very, very normal for Ali to think or feel or smell or see in Baghdad is so complexly not normal to us. And so one of the things that I gave as directions to the guys is just tell us everything that you're doing. I know it seems kind of silly, but really for us, it's very, very new. And I have to say the boys really delivered on that.

NEARY: We are talking with Laura Winters. She's a co-director of "Baghdad High," which is an HBO documentary, and you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I couldn't help wondering, Laura, as I was watching that, how much editing did you have to do? How much film did you get?

Ms. WINTER: That is a really good and crazy answer and question. We got about 300-plus hours worth of tape and it was insane and difficult and we had a system down, basically, a sweatshop kind of concept of, you get these tapes and you have to get through kind of two to three tapes a day. You have to translate them, log them and then start putting together and finding those pieces that you want.

So we would go through a cull and then I'd go back again, and with my co-director Ivan O'Mahoney, we would go through it again and cull it some more. And then my co-director and I would go through it again and cull it some more. And then we got it down to about 70 hours, but I would like to say that there is one boy, Mohammed Raed, who is responsible for one-third of those tapes. One-hundred hours one boy filmed...

NEARY: Mohammed?

WINTER: Uh-huh. He just loved the camera.

NEARY: I think that doesn't surprise me after watching, it is kind of - he is a very joyful character. Let's take a call now from Joyvon (ph) and she is calling from New Jersey. Hi, Joyvon.

JOYVON (Caller): Hello?

NEARY: Hi, go ahead.

JOYVON: Hi I am just wondering - I am an ESL teacher. I have a student who is from Iraq and he has a lot of stories of, you know, his feelings towards the United States. And I'm just wondering the kids in the film, what they thought about the United States, as far as the war is, or if they feel like the people over there are helping or hurting.

NEARY: Ali, maybe you can respond to that first, and then Laura, you can tell us what the other boys are feeling. This caller is asking, Ali, whether - how you feel about the war and about the Americans in Iraq?

Mr. ALI: How I feel or how I...?

NEARY: What do you think about that? What is your opinion of the Americans' presence in Iraq and the war that is going on.

Mr. ALI: Well, first of all, the United States, when they came to Iraq, you know, they took off the Saddam Hussein. You know, he was a bad president. So that was something really good. But you know, after that, things gone like crazy, you know? A lot of terrorists came and, you know, a lot of bombs.

NEARY: Your life really changed.

Mr. ALI: Yeah, you know. There was killing when Saddam's time and the same killing after him. It's kind of the same thing.

Ms. WINTER: I think what I can possibly add to that is in our film, one of the kid's mother, Hayder's mother, she's in the kitchen with her son Hayder and they are talking about, what was it like before the Americans came? And what is it like now? What do you think about it? And what was really sort of interesting about her was she said, I'm neither educated nor uneducated.

I'm not rich, not poor, but this thing I know is that when the Americans came, we all had a lot of hope. We all had a lot of hope that there was going to be a new way, a new life, a cleaner and easier way to be in the world, that they would have more freedom to say what they want, kind of like we do here.

And then all of this fighting started between these different groups and she just sort of looks at the camera and she just says, you know, it really would have been nice to know if the Americans were sincere or not. But now we'll just never know, because the fighting is going on.

NEARY: Let's take another call. We're going to go to Mir Ali (ph), who is calling from San Antonio, Texas. Sorry. Mir, are you there? Hello?

MIR (Caller): Hello.

NEARY: Yes, go ahead.

MIR: I want to talk to Ali.

NEARY: Yes, yes he's on the line. Go ahead.

MIR: OK. Salaam aleikum, Ali.

Mr. ALI: Aleikum salaam.

MIR: I am of your name, Ali. I just want to know, before the war, did you have any Shia friends and were you able to talk to them at that time, and are you able to talk to them now? And is it possible for you to go to your school freely, as you used to go previously, and for shopping, also, for everything to meet your relatives and everything?

NEARY: All right, that's - thanks so much for the call. We're going to let him answer. Go ahead.

Mr. ALI: I don't know the first part. I didn't get it.

Ms. WINTER: He's asking you if, you know, when you go to school in Iraq, when you were there, did you have Sunni and Shia friends and Christian friends as well?

Mr. ALI: Yeah, of course. They are religions of Iraq. That's Iraq, you know.

NEARY: That is one of the - I think that's one of things, Laura, and we're running out of time a little bit, so I just want to sum this up, that I think the film does show that. He had - you had Sunni friends and Shia friends and Christian friends and Kurdish friends and you were all friends in this school together, despite what was going on around you.

And it's a very interesting glimpse into the life of these teenage boys in Baghdad. Thanks so much for joining us this afternoon. Laura Winter is the co-director of "Baghdad High." And we were joined also by Ali, one of the teens who is featured in the film.

Mr. ALI: Thanks.

Ms. WINTERS: Thank you.

NEARY: This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. ..COST: $00.00

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