The battle to expel ISIS from the birthplace of its self-proclaimed Caliphate was described by a British general as “the toughest urban combat since the Second World War.”
My friend and colleague, the French cinematographer Olivier Sarbil, spent the best part of nine months on the front line of that brutal fight for Iraq’s second largest city. Olivier embedded with an Iraqi Special Forces squad of ten men. He was filming – and risking his life – for our new documentary, MOSUL.
Near the end of the battle I joined Olivier travelling across Iraq to track down the surviving soldiers. More than half of their squad had been killed or injured in the battle. Many of those we interviewed had bandaged limbs just out of shot.
Olivier had no fixer or translator with him while he was living with the soldiers on the frontline – and he spoke no Arabic. It led to an extraordinary kind of documentary experiment – a film that was genuinely fly-on-the-wall.
Over time the soldiers grew to trust Olivier and knew he couldn’t understand them so he and his camera became almost invisible to them. Whether they were whispering sweet nothings to a girlfriend on the phone or putting a gun to a civilian’s head their behaviour was totally un-self-conscious.
Oliver’s footage is not just intimate, it’s sublimely composed―in both senses of that word. One small criticism we’ve had of the film is that it’s “too beautiful.” I understand this reaction, but don’t agree with it. Yes, war is ugly. But―as photographers like James Nachtwey or Don McCullin have shown―it can contain beauty, because it contains people.
Viewers have become accustomed to shaky, out-of-focus footage from war zones; it is an easy way to convey drama. Olivier’s footage is intense but steady, because his gaze is on the characters who make up his story rather than the weapons they carry, or the sound of shellfire around them. The effect is as heartrending as any footage I’ve ever seen.
Olivier has covered war all around the world – it’s no coincidence that he can hold a shot while under fire - but this was easily the hardest. They faced daily gunfights, booby traps, car bombs. His life was saved by the Iraqi soldiers who treated him as one of their own.
While we were making this film Donald Trump attempted to introduce his infamous ’Muslim ban”, which included the very Iraqis who were on the front line in the fight against ISIS. Thankfully, he has since removed Iraq from his list under pressure from his own military.
Olivier and I have just returned from screenings of MOSUL in America and what really resonated with our audiences – even more than the raw combat footage - was how the Iraqi soldiers were humanised in a way they had rarely seen before.
So rather than seeing the Middle East as black and white - ISIS monsters and passive victims - these were fully rounded characters with flaws, emotions, families, girlfriends. We were determined to treat the subjects with the same respect that we would if they had been British or American soldiers - making the effort to interview them at home (despite more than a few logistical challenges), allowing them to tell their story in their own words. But equally we didn’t set out to hero-ise them. They made mistakes, sometimes crossed a line, but ultimately they were brave and humane – and totally recognisable to a western audience, far from the casual stereotype of Arab fighters.
Of course we don’t claim to be the first to focus on people in the Middle East acting bravely and humanely in their own country. The White Helmets – a film about the volunteers in Aleppo who take enormous risks to save lives - last year deservedly won an Oscar and one of the front-runners at this year’s Oscars City of Ghosts follows the work of citizen journalists in ISIS-controlled Raqqa. Long may these representations continue.
This week the Iraqi army defeated ISIS in their last remaining stronghold in Iraq. It’s a war that has cost thousands of soldiers’ lives and countless more innocent civilians. The real battle to rebuild Iraq and keep a fractured country together has only just begun. But now more than at any point since the invasion of 2003 the fate of the nation lies in the hands of its own people.
MOSUL is directed by Olivier Sarbil, co-directed and produced by James Jones, and produced by Dan Edge and Raney Aronson-Rath. It is a PBS Frontline production in association with Mongoose Pictures and Channel 4. MOSUL has qualified for the Academy Awards in the category of Best Documentary (Short Subject)