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Bombs Over Baghdad

Posted: 08/04/08 11:04 AM ET

Baghdad High refers to Tariq bin Ziad High School, which located in the heart of the city's war zone -- in fact, a quarter of the students have had to drop out due to the spectacular and unrelenting violence. Students are driven to school by their parents, dodging mortar fires and through army checkpoints. Once in the classroom, tests they take are marked aloud, in front of their entire class. The teacher will correct (and sometimes ridicule the handwriting of) the student in front of his peers. Baghdad High is not a friendly environment.

Hayder, Anmar, Ali and Mohammad are four students at Tariq bin Ziad who have agreed to film themselves for an entire year. The filmmakers' decision to hand out cameras to four teenagers is inspired; the four boys document their schoolwork and the intensifying warfare with neutral equality, and it's thanks to this blind prioritizing that the film is able to capture the interiority of its subjects more acutely than a straight-forward examination of violence would. In one scene, Hayder, an aspiring songwriter, leans out his window to listen to gunshots ringing from down the street. "I'm really worried... I'm really worried. Tomorrow we have an Arabic test."

There's an overwhelming and troubling urge to draw comparisons between the students of Baghdad High and some Platonic ideal of a Western teenager. When Anmar pines for his girlfriend (who hasn't texted him back in three days), only to frown that "She loves me too much. It's abnormal. Totally abnormal" when she finally does text him back, there's the recognition of ourselves in these Others. This isn't inherently any cause for concern, except implicit in this shock of recognition is the realization that before that point, these students were Others; 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.

However, one observable and welcome difference between the Iraqi boys and nearly any high school-aged American on reality (or "reality") programming is the former's lack of performance. The Baghdadis, luckily (or, I suppose there's an argument to be made, unluckily) spared cultural phenomena like Laguna Beach or The Paper, speak and act candidly and without melodrama.

The filmmakers and their families are, like many of us Stateside, ambivalent and conflicted about the War. The adults in the film are wary of the Americans' intentions, but hedge such doubts with admittances that they only known the little they do thanks to rumors and hearsay. The four documentarians have the sort of confidence in their convictions that is exclusive to teenage boys. In one scene, Mohammad is explaining to his mother that someone he knew had seen footage on the Internet of a suicide bomber detonate herself at the local business school. His mother, not having seen the footage, looks at him warily. Later, Hayder, reclining on his bed in his dark bedroom, asks (in English) why the terrorists and "bad people" do what they do. The audacity of attempting to understand the motivations of mass murders appears to be a wholly foreign idea to his parents' generation and, thankfully, one of increasing importance to his.

Baghdad High premieres tonight at 9 PM on HBO.