The HBO-produced documentary film Baghdad High offers a fairly basic yet intriguing enough premise: The filmmakers gave video cameras to four Iraqi high school students and asked them to simply record as much of their "normal life" as possible. (I'm of the opinion that any time you give a teenager a camera, you're getting everything BUT "normal life," but obviously I'm not the first to claim that the act of recording something instantly obliterates "normalcy.") The point here seems to be that ... hey, you know what? Aside from the fact that they live very far away in a country that's going through some terrible problems these days, these teenagers are a whole lot like ... our teenagers! Wow, how shocking is that?!?!?
What's most interesting about these kids is that, despite the fact that they all live in Iraq, they also come from very different religious backgrounds -- and yet they're still friends! (Hope for the future sometimes comes in small packages, I suppose.) All four of the boys are perfectly charming and entirely typical: They whine about homework, they stress over studies, they gripe about being bored, they argue with their parents, and they do all the stuff that your favorite teens do: Video games, pop music, sports, rough-housing, etc. So far all its admirable intentions, the simple truth is that Baghdad High makes a very good point about the similarities of human nature (especially where teens are concerned), but then it just sort of ... keeps making the same point over and over.
The fact is that these teenage boys are a LOT like the kids we know and love, but we get that point after less than 40 minutes of Baghdad High -- and then we're just left to watch the kids study, hang out, and stress over school. A more insightful documentary might have spent time showing how similar we all are -- before covering exactly why our cultures are so different. Aside from a few small moments in which the boys' parents discuss the nearby war zones, the punishment of Saddam Hussein, and the presence of the American military, the movie gives us practically zero insight into how young Iraqis really feel about America. Obviously they like our rap music and some of our clothes, but are these kids being raised to be open-minded about the world stage, or are they growing up as insular and ethnocentric as most American teens?
Even without that sort of socio-political meat on its bones, there's little denying that Baghdad High does offer some colorful insights into what these kids go through every day. It also helps that the four subjects -- Hayder Khalid, Mohammad Raed, Anmar Rafat, and Ali Shadman -- are very compelling young men. They go from serious to silly to sincerely scared about the explosions three streets over, and Baghdad High does a very good job of making the viewer think "Damn, it's just not fair that good kids like these have to deal with terrifying stuff like this every day." Baghdad High will undoubtedly prove very insightful to those who believe all Iraqis are "the enemy," but to those of us who choose not to vilify an entire country for the horrible actions of a few hate-filled war-mongers, the movie feels just a little bit simplistic.
Still, you could do a lot worse than to spend 90 minutes with this quartet of affable young Iraqi kids. Despite the fact that it doesn't get all that "deep" into the kids' mindset regarding war, violence, and America, Baghdad High is still a perfectly entertaining and somewhat insightful affair. I'm sure that co-directors Ivan O'Mahoney and Laura Winter have plenty of footage that's "less than flattering" (or worse), and one can't help but wish Baghdad High had been a bit more of a "warts and all" affair.