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"Iraq Is Full of Cool Kids" - Ivan O'Mahoney, Baghdad High

Dodie Ownes -- School Library Journal, 09/03/2008

In between his home in Australia and a shoot in the South China Sea, SLJTeen was able to catch up with Ivan O’Mahoney, co-director with Laura Winter of the recently released HBO documentary Baghdad High.

Baghdad High allows viewers to get a very unique look at life in and around Baghdad from the different perspectives of four teen-aged boys, filming themselves and their families and friends with hand-held cameras. How did you and Laura decide on this method?

It was mostly a security driven decision. We knew we wanted to make a film about Iraqi teenagers and that we’d like to set it in a high school. However, we then needed to find a way to do it in a manner that would not put the kids in any more danger than they would normally be. The situation in Baghdad was rapidly deteriorating at the time. We figured that if we ourselves filmed the boys or had a professional Iraqi crew follow them it would draw way too much attention. By training them to film their own lives we were able to keep the project low profile, off the radar, if you will.

I was surprised to see so much Western culture in these boys' lives (Britney Spears, The Eagles) – and when Ali, the Shia teen, moves out of Bagdad he bemoans the lack of it in the more provincial area of northern Iraq. How much of an influence did you discover it had in their lives?

Like many kids in the Middle East, western culture plays a big role in their daily lives, a lot bigger than we in the West often think it does. Interestingly though, they seem to be able to blend it comfortably with a sincere interest in their own Iraqi and middle eastern ‘pop’ culture as well. The boys listened to as much Arab music as Western music. It reminded me of my relatives and friends in Ireland. The kids there all listen to hip-hip, rock and pop but also love Irish traditional songs and music.

Most of the adults seem happy, or at least relieved, after Saddam is executed, with the exception of Anmar's family. Did his death pump up the risk factor for Christians in Baghdad?

I wouldn’t say that his death in itself increased the risk for Christians in Baghdad. It is all part of the general increase in sectarian violence that followed Saddam’s demise. That violence seems to have affected Sunnis and Shia Muslims as much as it has Christians.

One of the most striking parts of the movie to me was when Hayder went to visit his friend Lufti who lived just 500 feet away. I felt like he was in danger the whole time.

There is no doubt that merely setting foot outside your door can put your life at risk in Baghdad. You never know when a roadside bomb will hit you, when a suicide bomber decides that it is time to blow you up or when rival militias might battle it out in your neighborhood.  It is easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Aside from that kidnapping was rife as well. Many kids have been lifted from the street for ransom. In that sense, yes, the boys are constantly in danger.

Though each of the boys comes from a different ethnic/religious background, the affection they share is obvious. Is this common in Iraqi culture?

It is definitely more common in Arab culture for boys to display their affection in the manner that the boys did in our film. Western teenage boys often find it a little odd or unsettling but that is simply a cultural difference. The fact that they do this despite the fact that they are from different backgrounds might largely be because they grew up in a very mixed middle class neighborhood where their parents have always lived peacefully together. These kids were brought up as Iraqis first and foremost, not as Sunnis, Shia, Kurds or Christians.

What did Laura Winter bring to the final production as a first time filmmaker?

She might have been a first time filmmaker but she is a seasoned storyteller, thanks to her experience as a print and radio journalist. She brought all of that valuable experience to the table. Laura has a fantastic understanding of Iraqi culture and had great contacts in the country as well.

With their school and homes in the war zone, gunfire, helicopters and explosions provide the background to everyday life. When Ali is in a safer place, he seems to miss "the action" – though it is deadly. As a former UN peacekeeper, can you tell me more about that kind of reaction?

When I left Bosnia and came back home in the mid nineties, I had a similar reaction. Life seemed a bit ordinary; people were worrying about day to day things I had long stopped caring about. Undeniably, living in a warzone created a constant sense of excitement and had its own attraction, never knowing what the next day would bring. All of this despite the obvious horror of war itself. However, after being back for a few weeks I came to realize just how absurd it had been to live in the middle of a war, how dreadful life in those circumstances really was and how absurd the attraction had been. I quickly come to my senses and was then incredibly grateful that nothing had happened to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ali went through the same emotional roller coaster in this respect. There is an obvious difference of course – as a peacekeeper I was on the sideline of ‘someone else’s war’ – our Iraqi kids were right in the middle of their own even if it was caused by others.

What do you hope American teens will learn from this film?

That Iraq is full of cool kids. That this is not a nation of radical freaks who are all out to kill each other (and Americans for that matter); that what these kids need is peace, that if these boys can still get along despite the sectarian violence that ripped through their community there is still hope for Iraq. I would also hope that they come to realize that war has a very real effect on real people – that it is not like the movies with clearly defined lines between good and bad – that life is more complicated than that.

Baghdad Teen will be available via HBO/OnDemand through September 21, 2008. Click here for the complete schedule. The contact for non-theatrical sales for Baghdad High is Jeremy Wilcox, Channel Sales Manager BBC Active, Mezannine, 80 Strand, London, WC2R 0RL T: +44 (0)20 7010 2750 M: +44 (0)7779 991463 email:



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