NOWHERE TO HIDE B-
Norway Sweden Iraq (86 mi) 2016 d: Zaradasht Ahmed Official website
It’s difficult to diagnose this war. It’s an undiagnosed war. You only see the symptoms—the killing, displacements, blood baths. But you don’t understand the disease.
First of all, not to be confused with the 1999 Korean action flick by the same name, and nearly ten other films also using the same title, so there’s little excuse not to come up with something new, though to be fair, it does fit the material. The ultimate tragedy of this recent outpouring of Middle East documentaries is that the United States simply had no business being there in the first place, with no justifiable reason to invade Iraq in 2003, where we’ve simply opened up Pandora’s Box and made of mess of things there ever since, including the presence of al Qaeda and Isis who have been everpresent in the region, where it has gotten so indescribably bad, with cities reduced to rubble and conditions returning to Byzantine times, that it seems impossible to clean up the mess, leaving streams of dead and displaced people with few, if any, options. Though the film does not recognize a distinction, as unlike Syria, where citizens have been bombed by their own government, this is not a film about refugees, where citizens have a legitimate fear for their lives, seeking asylum somewhere else where they will be safe, as the displaced people here don’t really have a beef with their own government, who they do not view as a threat, but are victims of a war with Isis, a jihadist military organization that overran their territory in a power and land grab, with people fleeing from their homes, ending up in a temporary shelter in the middle of the desert. But the price paid to run Isis back out of that territory is what reduced these cities to rubble, where there are no homes left or businesses to return to. So where do these displaced people go? That’s the unanswered question for which there really are no answers. The opening of the film introduces us to Nori Sharif, married with four children, a medic working in a hospital in the town of Jalawla, a professional job with a government salary where he worked for more than a decade, indicating the problems he was used to treating changed over the years from simple fractures to severe battle injuries. Because of his familiarity with the region, the filmmaker, an Iraqi Kurd living in Norway, offered him a camera with instructions how to use it, asking him to record examples of what he sees. While the area of Diyala province is mostly a mix of Kurds, Sunni, and Shiites with a tradition of living quietly and peacefully, where the remoteness of the region caused little interest to the rest of the world, that all changed with the American invasion in 2003, where it is now one of the most battle-scarred regions, described as the “Triangle of Death.” One of the first decisions made by the occupying Americans was to disempower the Sunnis, the party of Saddam Hussein, including police and army personnel, who had a stabilizing presence in the region, causing instant friction, leading to a Shiite majority in the new government, arousing the ire of the Sunni population, which initially fueled the insurgency aimed against the Americans, making their continued presence extremely unpopular. The film actually begins in 2011 as the last of the American troops are withdrawing, creating an Iraqi jubilation that they finally have their country back again.
The immediate effect of the film, however, is the raw and amateur quality, much of it resembling reality TV, where Nori attempts to explain what he’s filming, but he offers no historical context, so many viewers will be left in the dark, unable to ascertain who’s fighting who, or why. This grainy quality does the film no favors, as it’s clear Nori is not a filmmaker, yet it’s his footage that we’re watching as we witness a local wedding or get firsthand footage of emergency room treatments, where his eyes provide the focal point of the entire film. It’s clear the world outside has become much more dangerous, as he sits on his roof at night, but reports that a dozen others in his neighborhood have been killed by snipers, where neighbors are killing neighbors. Nori is not a journalist, but he leaves out pertinent details, where the fighting between the Shiites and the Sunnis constitute most of the violence in Iraq, as the insurgency simply found a new enemy once the Americans left, namely the party aligned with the Americans. With the arrival of Isis jihadist fighters, the violence reaches unprecedented heights, with the radio announcing the death of nearly 2000 Iraqis in just a single month. Add to this land mines, car bombs, and suicide bombers, where a curfew is imposed in his town from 5 pm to 5 am, where eventually we get a sense that Kurds are fighting Isis for control of his town, as Jalawla borders Kurdish territories. Yet when Nori takes his camera and films inside the gruesome remains of a car used in a suicide bombing, many will think he’s crossed an ethical line in an obsession to reveal all the brutal details, where one wonders if we need to see dismembered body parts and pools of blood in what resembles graphic crime scene footage, where the audience is usually spared this kind of horrific detail. Shortly afterwards we hear a discussion about several young men who lived nearby that were kidnapped and beheaded, while dead bodies are left on the steps of the local police station in another message to residents. Finding it too dangerous to stay, most of the staff and all of the doctors abandon the hospital, as Nori is one of the few who stay, yet we hear the constant sound of an approaching battle that sends them home as well, gathering what they can in their car and leaving in a hurry. What follows is a frenzy of chaotic actions, with Nori handing the camera to one of his sons, pointing out the Isis flag hoisted atop the city as he documents his exit, frantically moving from one village to the next, constantly in fear, but all are under attack, where they keep escaping deeper into the abandoned homes in the desert until they finally discover the Sa’ad IDP Camp (Internally Displaced Persons), providing emergency shelter in rows upon rows of identical two-roomed huts, with as many as twenty people to a hut, yet there is running water nearby. It’s not much, where there’s next to nothing for their kids to do, but it’s a safe haven.
Only during this final exodus does the film really elevate to a level of poignancy, as the subject shifts from objectively filming hospital victims or casualties of Iraqi infighting, where people were still able to lead some semblance of a normal life in Jalawla, yet now the camera was subjectively pointed at Nori himself, as he becomes the film’s central focus, forced to flee from his home and his job, where constant uncertainty greets him. Running out of water, his kids get sick, with bugs invading the face of one of his sons, where this journey into the unknown is an anxiety-ridden experience, forced to endure horrible circumstances, where their very survival comes into question. Falling off the edge of a life they once knew, they are suddenly in a freefall where nothing makes sense anymore, as they are surrounded by confusion and fear. Joining others in similar circumstances, with new families arriving every day, it’s clear this is not a place you want to be, as people share horror stories of what they’ve witnessed to force them from their homes. While at least Nori’s family remains intact, not something everyone can say, yet they’ve reached a point of suspension, where their paralyzed lives are literally on hold, where any future is uncertain. After a passage of time, with Isis driven out, Nori and a select few return to Jalawla to inspect the hospital, where it’s done without permission, as they don’t have security clearance to be there, apparently under Shiite military control, but everything has been demolished, all the medical equipment smashed and destroyed, where it resembles the total destruction and ruins of war, where there’s nothing left to return to. As he pauses in reflection afterwards at a bridge overlooking a river, he finally realizes there’s absolutely no hope of return, which will devastate his family, still stuck in the temporary shelter, as there’s nowhere else to go. This transition from the hope and promise of a liberated Iraq in the beginning to the utter annihilation of their future is hard for anyone to reconcile, especially those forced to endure this kind of loss and deprivation, where it’s impossible to understand this kind of emotional upheaval, becoming one of his nation’s casualties, viewed as little more than collateral damage, joining thousands of internally displaced people in Iraq, which pale in comparison to the nearly half a million dead and millions of refugees exiting neighboring Syria. Human deprivation is damaging, wherever it occurs, especially in such a senseless fashion, where human life means so little. This rare, insider’s view offers a glimpse of life in the far corners of the Middle East, where conflicts remain and tragedy is an everyday occurrence, reveals a future that has been stolen from this younger generation, forced to endure squalor and catastrophic harm, yet somehow life goes on, even if there’s no home to return to. In America, perhaps the only incident remotely similar is the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which flooded more than 80% of the city, where the storm displaced more than a million people in the Gulf Coast region, with many able to return home within a few days, but up to 600,000 households were still displaced months later. Brilliantly filmed by Spike Lee in When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2005), the film is a blistering portrait of government ineptitude and moral outrage. Lacking the artistry and moral indignation of Lee’s film, the onus of this film is with the viewers, carrying a similar message of displacement, featuring the casualties of war and the trauma of being uprooted from what was formerly your life, subjectively placing the viewer in this family’s situation, having no chance of ever returning home, where your life has been stripped of its possibilities, literally placed on hold, and suspended until circumstances that have yet to materialize can develop.