Baghdad High combines the video diaries of four Iraqi teen boys during their 2006-07 senior year in the violence-fraught capital. The boys are religiously diverse “sons of Mesopotamia” who look to pass their national exams while U.S. helicopters patrol overhead, power outages persist, checkpoints must be negotiated every morning, and nighttime walks to a neighbor’s house are a mortal risk. Putting the trials of MTV reality-show prima donnas in perspective, the middle-class quartet will be relatable to this BBC/HBO production’s audience in their easy embrace of Western kid stuff (dopey cellphone videos, Britney and 2Pac as bedroom accompaniment for Koran study, “fuck!” as an interjection in Arabic sentences) and dealings with generational tensions (the frustration and anxiety of anguished parents grappling with financial and political hardship and the option of abandoning Baghdad, as a quarter of the school’s students do by midyear).
In assembling their protégés’ footage and augmenting it with interviews with their families, directors Ivan O’Mahoney and Laura Winter balance portraying an everyday sense of the adolescents’ wartime anxiety with the more commonplace juvenile relief; a friendly insult in this time and place is “If Chemical Ali really wanted to destroy the north, he’d fill a rocket with (your) socks.” Reflecting their elders’ varying reactions to Saddam’s conviction and execution, from exultation to concern, the boys’ nerves fray at the imminent verdict of their exam grades; unsure if their tenuous nation is on the edge of civil war, to pass on to university offers an uncertain but plausible hope for a future of stability and peace. Words on the country’s combative political factions or the American agenda are scarce in Baghdad High; its students’ wary eyes, shaky confidence, and will to endure another day in the war zone that is home are the spine of its argument.