THE BLOG
01/29/2008 04:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

HBO's Baghdad Hospital : It Ain't E.R.

Dr. Omer Salih Mahdi will never forget the day he killed the baby.

"It was a few months after the Americans arrived in 2003. A pregnant woman came into our emergency room, " he said. She needed a Caesarean section but the three surgeons on duty were caring for the wounded. Dr. Mahdi was forced to choose between saving the mother's life or saving the baby. "I felt very weak. We had queues of people who were suffering," he recalled. "I chose to kill the baby."

For Dr. Mahdi, it was a life-changing decision. "Doctors have to work on their own. You feel lonely, you watch people dying. You can't do anything," he told me in a telephone interview last week.

Haunted by the helplessness and sense of isolation that can exacerbate the psychic wounds of anyone who gets close to violent death, Dr. Mahdi felt he could not continue practicing medicine in Iraq. In 2005, after a stint working as a translator for American journalists George Packer and Deborah Amis, Guardian Films of Britain trained him to shoot film in hostile conditions. Later that year, he made a short film on mental health in Iraq.

In June 2006, Dr. Mahdi obtained permission from the Ministry of Health to film inside the Al Yarmouk Hospital in the Red Zone of Baghdad. "It is very difficult to let foreigners into that neighborhood in the southwest part of the city. It is totally out of control of the government," he explained, adding that he chose it because of the number of casualties that were being brought in for treatment. There was no anaesthesia for 20 days and chronic shortages of blood for transfusions. He said, "At the peak of the civil war, it becomes a field hospital. Sometimes 50 people come in within one and a half hours."

"The Red Zone is off limits to foreign correspondents," said Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in a discussion that took place after a recent screening of the documentary. Since foreign correspondents are only allowed in the section of Baghdad called the Green Zone, this film brings the viewer into a neighborhood devastated by the fighting between Sunnis and Shias. The images of explosions in Baghdad are sadly familiar to American audiences. But the voices of everyday people whose lives have been damaged beyond repair are rarely heard. "Since 2003, Iraq has become the most dangerous area of conflict for journalists. 174 journalists and members of the media have been killed. Of those, 150 were Iraqis," said Mr. Simon.

H.B.O. Vice President of Media Relations Lana Iny sought affiliation with C.P.J. for the screening. She said, "Omer risked his life to make this film. We thought C.P.J. would be the best partner."

The crisis that propelled him to make this film is more than just backstory. It informs the urgency and desperation that accompanies each tracking shot through the corridors of a hospital turned hellhole. We are shown disturbing close-ups: a fleshy, hairy leg gouged with shrapnel; crusty IV bags draped on the floor next to a patient's bed for there are not enough IV stands; a boy writhing as a crudely improvised set of chest tubes is pushed into his lungs to pump out excess blood. The sounds of metal gurneys scraping against tile floors, like chalk squeaking on a blackboard, compete with the wretched cries of those in pain. A mother screams for the return of Saddam Hussein. The uncle of an injured boy wonders how it could come to this, Iraqis killing Iraqis. "We are not like that," the uncle says. In the end, for Dr. Mahdi, "this is not an easy film."

It is, however, a testament to his persistence.

Fearful for their safety and their careers, no fewer than 350 doctors refused to appear on camera. The 351st to be asked, surgeon Ali Adbul Wahed, agreed. A few hospital employees and members of an ambulance crew agreed to go on-camera. Their courage and humility is the heart of the film. During his 14 days of traveling with the ambulance crew, the filmmaker was threatened and harassed many times. "I worried I would be kidnapped. Al Yarmouk Hospital is in an area with Al-Qaeda insurgents," Dr. Omer told me. "The Ministry of Health arrested me and interrogated me. They took my tapes and watched my tapes."

Baghdad Hospital first aired on BBC2 in the UK in October 2006. The filmmaker's face and identity were not revealed to protect him and his family. But after the first showing, his father was killed and two of his brothers were kidnapped; another was shot.

Dr. Mahdi went into hiding. His remaining family sought safety in Syria. He applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to study journalism. When his visa finally came through, Dr. Mahdi moved to Muncie, Indiana where he is now in his second semester of journalism school at Ball State University. Although he was aware of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mr. Simon said, "Omer was underground. We were not aware of him until he was ready to go public. He thanked us for everything C.P.J. is doing."

Having committed to his new career, Dr. Mahdi recognizes similarities in medicine and journalism. Both doctors and journalists bear witness to human suffering. "But journalists are more powerful than doctors. They can shout to the world, "Watch! You need to do something."

Winner of the 2007 International Emmy for Current Events, Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone will air on HBO stations beginning January 29th.