The Boys from Baghdad High is a television documentary film which premiered in the United Kingdom at the 2007 Sheffield Doc/Fest, before airing on BBC Two on 8 January 2008. It was also aired in many other countries, including France, Australia, the United States, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. It documents the lives of four Iraqi schoolboys over the course of one year in the form of a video diary. The documentary was filmed by the boys themselves, who were given video cameras for the project.
Produced by Renegade Pictures and StoryLabTV for the United Kingdom's British Broadcasting Corporation, Home Box Office in the United States, and the Franco-German network Arte, The Boys from Baghdad High was produced and directed by Ivan O'Mahone and Laura Winter, executive produced by Alan Hayling and Karen O'Connor for the BBC and Hans Robert Eisenhauer for ARTE. For HBO, Sheila Nevins was credited as an additional executive producer, Victoria Ford and Geof Bartz were consulting editors, and Lisa Heller the supervising producer. It starred Hayder Khalid, Mohammad Raed, Anmar Refat and Ali Shadman.
The Boys from Baghdad High has been well received by the mass media, and has received many positive reviews in many countries describing it as "notable", "fascinating", "moving", "appealing" and "exhilarating and chilling". It was nominated for two awards at different film festivals, was named the Best News and Current Affairs film at the European Independent Film Festival, and won the Premier Prize at the Sandford St. Martin Trust Awards. It was also nominated for an award from Amnesty International, and the Radio Times Readers Award.
O'Mahoney and Winter began working on the film in 2006. They wanted to make a documentary about "the people never seen on the evening news, [instead of] presidents, prime ministers, generals and militants ... [who] claim to know something of Iraq's future". Instead they decided to concentrate on the real source of Iraq's future – teenagers. "I wanted to tell the story of Iraq in a different way," said Winter. "As journalists, we do stories about kids and teenagers, but we don't hear from them. If you go to the UN reports, they are just a number and that's it." O'Mahoney was a little more reticent, however. He did not wish to return due to the Civil war and the deteriorating condition of the country. When it was decided that they would use a school as a backdrop to the story, which could also be used to provide a chronological narrative, O'Mahoney and Winter realised that it would be too dangerous for the students to be seen with either a Western or Iraqi camera crew because it would draw too much attention to them. It was decided that the students would film the documentary themselves.
Winter chose Tariq bin Ziad High School for Boys to source the students from. It is a school which was still holding onto the notion of a united Iraq, in contrast to the racially and religiously segregated country it was becoming. Having worked in Iraq in 2003, she knew that the Baghdad district Karrada was very mixed and integrated with high numbers of Shiites and Christians. She asked one of her translators who had attended the school if he would contact the principal of the school. Initially the school was suspicious of their intentions, but decided to trust the judgement of Winter's translator. Ra'ad Jawad, the school's principal, selected eight boys to take part in the documentary because because he knew they would be discreet, would not get bored, and would remain committed to filming their lives for a year. Jawad travelled to London to meet the producers, and he was trained how to operate the video cameras that the boys would be given. The cameras and tapes were sent into Iraq via the BBC News department, which were then passed onto the school. Jawad and two Iraqi associate producers then trained the boys how to use the cameras.
After about two months, four of the boys dropped out of the project, leaving Hayder Khalid, Anmar Refat, Ali Shadman, and Mohammad Raed. The producers took the boys' security very seriously. O'Mahoney explained: "[The boys] were under very strict security rules when they were filming. They were told not to act as news cameramen. They were not allowed to film in the street. They could only film at school or at home, in secured environments." Nevertheless, Haydar filmed outside at night on occasion, explaining he had to be careful as people are robbed if they are seen carrying even a cell phone. On New Year's Eve, he and his friend celebrate with a bonfire in his friend's back yard, but after debating whether a noise they hear is fireworks or a gunfire, Hayder rushes home. When another boy is driven to school one morning, they reach a special forces checkpoint. He explains, "if they see me with a camera they will take me to prison, they'll think I'm a terrorist who wants to bomb them." Receiving the tapes for editing also proved difficult for Winter and O'Mahoney. They had to rely on reporters from different news agencies, especially those in the BBC News's Baghdad Bureau high-risk team, to bring the tapes out of Iraq. When the curfews were enforced, weeks passed before they were given new tapes because it was impossible for anyone to leave their homes or the country. O'Mahoney and Winter never even met the boys because they were undertaking such a high-risk assignment – as Mohammed noted in the documentary, if the soldiers at the roadsite security check-point found his camera, he was likely to be arrested under the suspicion of terrorism. The first time either of them met one of the film's subjects was at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, nearly a year after the filming had completed, and only then did they meet Ali because his family had relocated to the US. The producers had previously tried to get the boys visas to enter the UK for a screening in London, but the British Government denied them entry.
Over 300 hours of footage was filmed by the students, and along with occasional footage from the two Iraqi associate producers, it was translated, transcribed, and edited into a 90-minute film. Of the footage which was not included in the documentary was footage of Saddam Hussein's execution, which Anwar had filmed from the internet, from start to finish. "We had a big debate about whether or not that should go into the film," O'Connor explained. Water continued, "it was one of those things where to see it, it just gets you. But we had to ask ourselves, does it help our story? No." Footage which was nearly edited out included the scene where Anwar had to siphon petrol out of the family car for the house's generator, and explain that he needed to do it because their family was "so poor". "that's tough," commented Water, "because that's a dishonor to his family."
The BBC made the documentary available for viewers from the UK to stream using its BBC iPlayer service for seven days after the initial broadcast. A DVD in Region 2 format can also be obtained, although it can only be purchased directly from the BBC, and is not available in stores.
Reviews for The Boys from Baghdad High were generally favourable. The Washington Post's Paul Farhi said, "HBO has carved a niche as the TV home of some of the most compelling programs about the Iraq war... Baghdad High does no harm to HBO's burgeoning war cred[ibility]." Thomas Sutcliffe of The Independent said, "its storyline was governed not by a tick-list of stock narrative dilemmas and secrets but the cruel uncertainties that occupation and insurgency have brought to Baghdad." PopMatters rated the documentary 8 out of 10. However, Mark A. Perigard of the Boston Herald commented, "After the time you’ve [the viewer] invested, it’s not nearly satisfying enough. For all the questions this fascinating film raises, it might as well be written in sand." Bill Weber of Slant Magazine said, "putting the trials of MTV reality-show prima donnas in perspective, the middle-class quartet will be relatable to this BBC/HBO production's audience in their easy embrace of Western kid stuff... Directors Ivan O'Mahoney and Laura Winter balance portraying an everyday sense of the adolescents' wartime anxiety with the more commonplace juvenile relief." That juvenile relief was commented on by many – moments such as Mohammed's "tender concern for a household mouse he 'adopts'" in The Washington Post, In The New York Times, Mike Hale wrote, "Suddenly Ali is holding a large knife. 'He’s being naughty!' Mohammed says. Ali holds the knife near Mohammed and says, a little too unemotionally: 'Allah! This is the first hostage. I’m going to slaughter him this way.' Mohammed tells him to stop fooling around. Ali relents. 'O.K. He just got a presidential pardon. He can live.'". Reuters also commented on this, and more banter between Ali and Mohammed. "Ali is shown making a pretend hostage video with Mohammad, and then teasing his friend for his smelly feet. 'If Chemical Ali really wanted to destroy the north he should have fired a rocket with Mohammad's socks in it'." At the Q&A session following a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, one audience member, a new recruit to the United States Marine Corps, told Ali, who had also attended, "I finally know what life is like behind those walls and what you guys are like, and it's been really, really fantastic." Entertainment Weekly, LA Weekly, Variety, and the New York Observer also praised the film.
Many reviewers pointed out the similarities between the Iraqi boys and those from Western cultures. "Like students at any high school, they joke around, play soccer, listen to Tupac Shakur, and try to study", said Patrick Huguenin of New York's Daily News. "Much of the film shows the boys doing what most teenagers do -- playing sports, dancing in their bedrooms, playing around at school." said Michelle Nicholls of Reuters. Farhi said, "They mostly struggle to be like teenagers everywhere. They listen to American rap music (one boy while studying the Koran), play basketball and soccer, roughhouse or just hang out... The boys begin to stress out over their final exams. Failure means they'll have to repeat their senior year." He continued by saying, "Viewers will likely watch this concluding passage with a sense of relief. Worrying about tests and grades, after all, seems normal, the kind of stuff teenagers should be preoccupied with." Mark A. Perigard of the Boston Herald commented, "despite the cultural differences, Ali, Anmar, Hayder and Mohammad will seem instantly familiar to anyone who has spent time around a teenage boy. They like to wrestle each other, love Western music, dream big and have trouble buckling down in school." Peter Scarlet, Artistic Director at the Tribeca Film Festival said, "What's fascinating about the film that resulted is how very familiar and ordinary these kids are-they're not really all that different from your own teenagers or the kids you went to school with. The kids of Baghdad High also open us up to a very different sense of life in Iraq than what we've been seeing on the nightly news for five years."
The depiction of the differences between the two cultures were also commented on. Farsi described the school as having "all the charm of an abandoned prison", and continued with, "Visiting a friend who lives a few hundred yards away involves running a potential gantlet of kidnappers and snipers; getting to school on time means navigating military checkpoints. Before a big exam, teachers frisk their students for explosives," while Perigard said, "at night, their neighborhoods are riddled with gunfire and explosions", and Huguenin, "American teens wouldn't recognize other scenes showing how life slips into a heavily regulated series of checkpoints and curfews." Hale said, "The way the boys can tell without looking whether it’s an Apache or a Chinook helicopter overhead. The way the curtains are always drawn. The level of physical contact and affection among the men, which would be alien to American sensibilities."
There were complaints however that the documentary did not depict enough of the political aspects of the Iraqi War. "The 90-minute documentary doesn't say much about the larger issues facing Iraq, but it does capture some small and captivating human stories... They live in what one boy describes as 'the most dangerous city on Earth.' You don't see much of Iraq's violence in "High," but you surely feel its gravity and their dread." Perigard said "[it is] a personal story, not a political one", while Weber said, "Words on the country's combative political factions or the American agenda are scarce in Baghdad High". Hale commented, "While the boys talk frequently about violence and despair, they rarely discuss politics or ethnic differences (with the exception of Anmar, the Christian) and they almost never directly address the American presence. We do hear some parental opinions, which are surprisingly neutral. One mother says: 'We shouldn’t blame the Americans for everything. There is something wrong with us too'."