‘Homeland, Iraq Year Zero’: Monumental film charts destruction of a nation

France 24 , Thursday 11 Feb 2016

‘Homeland, Iraq Year Zero’
Still from ‘Homeland, Iraq Year Zero’ (Photo: France 24)

A mesmerizing and deeply moving portrayal of the Iraq War as seen by Iraqis, Abbas Fahdel’s six-hour masterpiece is essential viewing for anyone hoping to understand the devastating implications of the US-led invasion.

In 1991, Iraq became a hapless party to the birth of televised warfare, as Western TV crews scrambled to get the best rooftop views of Tomahawk missiles raining down on Baghdad. The spectacle resumed, on a much larger scale, in 2003. Then came the big-budget movies. But somehow, 25 million Iraqis, a people unfortunate enough to have experienced both Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and the wrath of the Bush dynasty, were largely absent from the show.

Fahdel’s hugely rewarding documentary, which opened in French cinemas on Wednesday, is a reminder that one could watch a dozen of Hollywood’s obscene takes on the Iraq war and still have no clue as to what it meant to be at the receiving end of the war on terror. There is no “shock and awe” in his 334-minute epic, no American sniper picking off swarms of faceless insurgents – just ordinary Iraqis struggling to get along with their lives even as their world collapses.

“Homeland, Iraq Year Zero” was shot with a lightweight camera before and after the US-led invasion in 2003, while the Iraqi director, who lives in France, was staying with his family in Baghdad and the countryside. It is split into two parts, subtitled “Before the fall” and “After the battle”. The only thing Fahdel doesn’t show is the actual bombing that played night and day on Western media.

The film’s somewhat unoriginal title, juxtaposing two cinematic references, announces the director’s twin endeavor: exploring the flipside of the war on terror as he documents Iraq’s descent into chaos, with the neo-realistic poignancy of a Roberto Rossellini. As in the Italian director’s “Germany Year Zero”, much of this chaos is seen through the eyes, gestures and devastatingly lucid observations of a child.

Before the fall

We meet the filmmaker’s 11-year-old nephew Haidar and his siblings in the haven of their Baghdad home in 2002, in those anxious months when George W. Bush and his British ally Tony Blair were busy fabricating a pretext to invade Iraq. The immanence and inevitability of war pervades the movie’s first part, hanging like a cloud over Fahdel’s family as they go about their routine, drinking tea, playing games, studying for exams and gazing indifferently at Saddam Hussein’s omnipresent propaganda on TV.

War preparations – digging a water well, making dried bread, putting sellotape on windows that still bear the traces of previous conflicts – feel like a familiar drill. This is a nation steeped in war, from the devastating conflict with Iran in the 1980s to the Bush wars, passing by the “war with no name” – a reference to the brief bombing campaign former US president Bill Clinton ordered in 1998, dubbed “Monica’s War” by many Western commentators due to its concomitance with the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Fahdel’s handheld camera bears witness to Iraq's many layers of destruction, from ancient Assyrian ruins to children maimed by war and the crippling embargo of the 1990s. Its melancholic gaze – alternating between tender close-ups and longing shots of Iraq’s blue skies and ochre landscapes – appears to question whether, this time, the cradle of human civilization might be reduced to dust.

The director’s decision to tell the viewer, as the film unfolds, which of his relatives will eventually be killed, gives the footage a haunting quality, turning the protagonists into walking ghosts. “It’ll be a short war,” warns the extraordinarily prescient Haidar. “But intensive and destructive.”

After the battle

Part two resumes three weeks after the US-led blitzkrieg that toppled the Baathist regime. The fearsome shadow of Saddam Hussein has been replaced by ubiquitous columns of US armoured vehicles. There is a brief sense of relief as people begin to speak out against the deposed regime and dare to hope of a better future. Satellite dishes sprout on rooftops and the critical food rations are handed out for free.

But the mood sours as Iraq’s foreign occupiers prove incapable of running the country and guaranteeing basic security. With Iraq’s bureaucracy and security services disbanded, looters are free to plunder and torch people’s homes and public buildings, murdering and kidnapping as they please. Soon, the foreign invader is seen as a greater scourge than the brutal, unloved regime it toppled, and reports of American abuses draw cries of revenge.

Providing a little context but no commentary, Fahdel documents the widespread destruction wrought by the US bombing and the ensuing chaos. Guided by Haidar and his siblings, he gives a voice to the desperate folks who have lost their homes, jobs and families. It is hard not to squirm in one’s seat when the camera gazes at a throng of grinning children, each holding aloft ammunition picked up in the street and expertly naming the gun type as though it were a Lego model.

Undaunted spirit

Both a war film and a peace film, Homeland is a damning indictment of the catastrophic errors that dragged Iraq and the wider region into its present misery. It sets the stage for the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group and its bandwagon of bloodshed, hatred and destruction. It is also a deeply moving celebration of the people and culture the IS group has set about to enslave and destroy.

At a preview of his film in Paris, Fahdel said Homeland was born out of his urge to draw a portrait of Iraq before it was too late. The sense of impending destruction he felt in 2002, on the eve of the war, inspired his focus on the tiny details of life. Every shot of a scuttling cat, a drowning bee, a bustling bazaar, a date picker perched atop a palm tree, feels like a testament to a doomed world. “The film ends tragically,” he said. “But the situation now is far worse.”

But amid all the misery, there is an undaunted spirit running through the film. It survives in the wicked sense of humour of Iraqis long accustomed to corruption, oppression and war. It thrives in the unbroken enthusiasm of Haidar and his friends, able to make a game out of the slightest dirt mound. It radiates from young girls’ dogged insistence on completing their education even as their world teeters on the brink.

It took more than a decade for Fahdel to get over his family’s tragedy and look back at the 120 hours of footage he accumulated over 17 months. It would take him another two years to edit and produce the film, a task he undertook alone after production companies turned him down. He said it was his duty to complete the movie and help rebuild Iraq’s “audio-visual memory”. Those lucky enough to view this essential film will feel much the richer.

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