Review: “Baghdad High”


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‘Baghdad High’ (HBO, premieres tonight, 9 p.m., with replays through Aug. 16.) The senior-year high school documentary has become a populous genre in itself -- “American Teen” being merely the latest and loudest example -- and even the idea of giving kids cameras to film it themselves is not new. But “Baghdad High,” shot in that embattled city over the course of the 2006-2007 school year -- which encompassed both the execution of Saddam Hussein and the Bush surge, and saw the rapid deterioration of security and infrastructure –- does bring a new slant to the form.

Shot mainly by four friends, fellow students at a middle-class boys’ school whose cultural and religious differences (Kurd, Christian, Shia and half-Shia-half-Sunni) have no effect on their affections, it offers a close-up picture of Iraqi life that, while limited in scope, is more familiar than might be expected and more nuanced than what we are usually given to consider. It isn’t the stuff of the nightly news or the special report: As a story, it lacks sensation, even with gunfire out the window, explosions in the distance and checkpoints on the way to school. Nothing much goes on: a little basketball here, some soccer there, a lot of hanging out, or just entertaining oneself in on one’s own room. But it’s full of casual details -– the look of a kitchen or a classroom or a front yard -- that brings the country to life in a way that ordinary journalism regularly fails to do.


It’s not a political document: Politics at the level these teenagers experience it is just the bad stuff you can do nothing about. Their concerns are more immediate (the electricity keeps going out, final exams are on the way) and more distant, the dreams of what one might become, somewhere else. They are sweet kids, physical with one another in ways that might get them slammed up against a locker in the United States, affectionate with their families, and tender toward animals -- an injured pigeon, a puppy, a mouse discovered in the bedroom. The usual confusion of being 17 or 18 is complicated by the tension of living in a war zone. One of the four presents his version of the Baghdad news: “First item -– killed. Second item –- died. Third item -– exploded. Fourth item –- kidnapped. Good news? There’s no good news.” But another, whose Kurdish family moves north to relative peace and quiet, misses the excitement, and the culture. “They only know Michael Jackson here,” he laments.

--Robert Lloyd