The Boys From Baghdad High - Critical Reception

Critical Reception

Reviews for The Boys from Baghdad High were generally favourable. The Huffington Post said that giving the video cameras to the students was an excellent idea because the depiction of their school-life versus the increasing danger was captured "with neutral equality that the film is able to capture the interiority of its subjects more acutely than a straight-forward examination of violence would". 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." Time Out New York gave the film five out of five stars, and PopMatters rated it 8 out of 10. 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." Variety, The Christian Science Monitor, LA Weekly, and the Los Angeles Times also praised the film. At the Question-and-Answer 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."

There were complaints, however, that the documentary did not depict enough of the political aspects of the Iraqi War. Farhi said, "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 happen to live in what one boy describes as 'the most dangerous city on Earth.' You don't see much of Iraq's violence in Baghdad High, but you surely feel its gravity and their dread." The Boston Herald's Mark Perigard said that he felt the documentary was "a personal story, not a political one". In The New York Times, Mike 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'." Jennifer Marin, a culture columnist from the Los Angeles Times, wrote at About.com, that while it was innovative, informative and a noble experiment, the footage is "undistinguished and rough because the hands holding the cameras weren't skilled and the eyes framing the shots were not those of artists or keen observers." She thought that, with the exception of Mohammad, the boys lacked charisma, and that the film failed to capture the drama of living in a war-zone, due to the lack of a director calling the shots. Perigard said, "After the time you've invested, it's not nearly satisfying enough. For all the questions this fascinating film raises, it might as well be written in sand."

"I think this film reflects on almost any place that is in the midst of a violent conflict. While militants are shooting at each other, blowing each other up and terrorizing the population to force their allegiance, people go on living. Kids try to go to school. Birthdays are celebrated. Teens hang out and dance to music. Exams are taken. All of these are normal things, all in the midst of incredible violence. Really this film is about the triumph of the collective human spirit."

—Laura Winter

Many reviewers noted the similarities between the Iraqi boys and those from Western cultures. Peter Scarlet, the 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 Huffington Post said, "previously it had been unfathomable that students in Baghdad might be experiencing the same ephemeral and narcissistic heartbreak as we are in the United States." Farhi and Nicholls noticed that the Iraqi students do the same things as American high school students, such as listening to rap music, trying to study without distractions, playing sports, becoming stressed over their final exams and acting silly with their friends. Perigard 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."

The New York magazine said that the film's premise of four high-school friends videotaping their senior year "sounds like a fluffy reality show"; 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 an everyday sense of the adolescents' wartime anxiety with the more commonplace juvenile relief." Similarly, The Huffington Post raised comparisons with MTV reality shows, but was pleased to see that the Iraqi boys did not play to the cameras because they had not been exposed to programmes such as Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County or The Paper. That juvenile relief was commented on by many; The Washington Post highlighted Mohammad's adoption of an unwelcome mouse in the house. Hale described a scene where Mohammad and Ali act like hostage and captor. "Suddenly Ali is holding a large knife. 'He's being naughty!' Mohammad says. Ali holds the knife near Mohammad and says, a little too unemotionally: 'Allah! This is the first hostage. I'm going to slaughter him this way.' Mohammad 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 Mohammad. "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'."

The depiction of the stark differences between Iraq and the Western world also received comments. Farhi 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 gauntlet 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 neighbourhoods are riddled with gunfire and explosions". In the New York Daily News, Patrick Huguenin wrote, "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 ... would be alien to American sensibilities."

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