Olivier Sarbil’s Mosul documentary sheds different light on front line
Gunshots resound and shards of glass crackle beneath combat boots in the opening scenes of “MOSUL” by French film-maker Olivier Sarbil. The documentary follows Iraqi US-trained special forces fighters, formerly known as the Golden Division, leading the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Filming took place over a six-month period with Sarbil spending four to six weeks at a time in Iraq.
The film’s lead task, as discussed by Sarbil at a London screening, was to humanise the men on the front lines whose efforts are too often dismissed, demonised or taken for granted. The footage and skilful editing allow the film to supersede mainstream depictions of “heroic” and “fearless” men and reveals a murkier face of liberation in Mosul.
Behind the involvement of every Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) recruit the film introduces, there is a different motive. Anger, terrorism, national pride and a thirst for revenge are factors activating their desire to fight as they reveal on camera. The same men are fathers, brothers and friends to one another.
On the battlefield, their responsibility to manoeuvre high-risk chess moves is never without life-changing consequences. At least 40% of the group of men Sarbil was embedded with were injured or killed. Viewers familiar with Iraq are aware of the compensation that will be awarded to their families but the payouts cannot resurrect the thousands of young men who have died.
Whether these men are offered up by their own government as sacrificial lambs is an impossible question to duck. This is especially true when the portrait of war depicted spoke to the shrinking support Baghdad-aligned forces received.
The cause of national liberation is not to be mocked but, when the situation has in large part been created by the very powers promising salvation, we must ask whose blood must spill to rectify their mistakes?
Fighters are not alone in paying for the political failures of Iraq’s post-2003 state.
Although they only feature intermittently, civilians are those hardest hit by the ugliness of war, as the film communicates in several scenes. Early on, a woman trembles with fear after she and her family retreat to a house seized by ISF forces. Holding the white flag, the woman thanks the soldiers but her involuntary demeanour represents the distrust of all sides involved in the war.
Boys heard on screen exude a similar mistrust but wore their confidence like armour when threatened by the film’s protagonists, who repeatedly accused young Iraqis of harbouring ISIS fighters.
These scenes inject balance on screen by contrasting the experiences of combatants and non-combatants.
However dissimilar their experiences, both sides fall into an unbroken cycle of revenge, spun for 14 years. A lifetime of war has produced a reservoir of angry young male fighters but, more dangerously, fighters with unquenchable appetites for violence. Sarbil’s documentary offers a glimpse of their addiction to this and more and more bloodletting.
One fighter, Hussein, expressed joy at the sight of the human trophies he had killed and collected snapshots of. In times of boredom, Hussein scrolls through the images and maintains a tally of those he has killed. Such mundane activities, Hussein claims, help him maintain focus on the task at hand.
This taps into the psychological toll of combat, a subject the media industry is less interested in. The film’s success in teasing out these themes, however, lends it credibility for broadening the lens of viewers. Its greatest accomplishment has been shattering the simple dichotomy between good and evil that Hollywood films are made of.
By disengaging with prevalent political outlooks, the film teaches that wars aren’t lost or won; they are a series of chess moves that can easily go belly up. Equally, it reminds us there aren’t any agreed versions of the past.
One element of the production should lead to question the role of film-makers. Have Sarbil and the likes become unwitting actors in their own dramas? Floods of funds have been invested in this production and English group Massive Attack composed the score for the documentary. Will any of the proceeds reach Malawis or any Iraqis displaced in the fight against ISIS?
The lack of answers to these questions may leave a bitter taste for people whose countries and struggles have become a resource for profit and entertainment.
Nazli Tarzi is an independent journalist, whose writings and films focus on Iraq’s ancient history and contemporary political scene.