If you think high school student dramas are played out, HBO’s planning to prove you wrong. Tonight, they’ll showcase a class clown, an aspiring musician, a sports stud, and a lovelorn teen. But these aren’t your average high school teens—these are students of Baghdad High.
Baghdad High is HBO’s latest in a string of provocative and intimate Iraq documentaries. It captures the senior year of four students from different religious and ethnic backgrounds: a Kurd, a Shia, a Sunni, and a Christian. As they enter their final year at the Tariq bin Zaid High School for Boys in Baghdad, the students are given video recording equipment and a crash course on filming and set out to chronicle their daily lives. The result is a captivating portrayal of a Baghdad we rarely see, one that allows the American viewer to put a teenage face on the realities of the war.
Much of the power in this documentary emerges from tension between the familiar behavior of teenagers and the extraordinary nature of a war zone. On one hand, these teens confront the same challenges as any other teenager around the world—popularity, grades, romance—it’s impossible to ignore the similarities to our own teenage experiences. Who hasn’t waited hours by the phone for their true love to call? On the other hand, the lives of the students are dominated by an oppressive and oft faceless violence that influences every decision and shadows every achievement. As electricity becomes increasingly scarce, classrooms crumble, and sectarian violence grows in Baghdad, the students and their families must confront a terrifying decision—risk staying in Baghdad to finish their exams, or flee their homes and their educations for safety.
Baghdad High provides a clear window from our living rooms into the homes and classrooms of those struggling to survive a war-torn Baghdad. During its most personal moments, the film’s “home video” style allows the boys to share their dreams and tragedies directly with the audience without interference. Rarely does an American audience have such unfettered access into the true, everyday lives of Iraqis. By the end, this touching documentary makes a powerful social comment on the value of war and the burden it places on common people, leaving the audience to reconsider the utility of war as an option in settling conflict. Ultimately these four Iraqi teens have taken a crucial step toward closing the gap between “us” and “them.”