EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling directors who have films screening at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.
Ivan O'Mahoney and Laura Winter's "Baghdad High" follows the lives of ordinary Iraqis during the war. Screening in the World Documentary Competition at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, O'Mahoney and Winter gave four Iraqi high school seniors a digital camera to record a year in the lives. The result is a film that shows how remarkably similar these teenagers' lives are compared to those in the Western world. indieWIRE talked to both filmmakers about the film and their expectations for its North American Premiere at Tribeca.
In the Tribeca catalog, TFF artistic director Peter Scarlet writes that "with moving intimacy, 'Baghdad High' affords an unprecedented glimpse into the lives of ordinary Iraqis attempting to lead ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances... The kids of [the film] open us up to a very different sense of life in Iraq than what we've been seeing on the nightly news for five years."
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
Laura Winter: While, I've been writing for newspapers and magazines and have worked for television and radio in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, I've really been wanting to tell the stories that I have been seeing and experiencing in a more evocative medium. Ivan, my co-director, really made it possible by taking a chance on me and allowing me to dive right into filmmaking. Making "Baghdad High" has been the most fulfilling story-telling experience I have had to date because through this medium we can really connect with Iraq's future, the kids. It's my first film, and most definitely not my last. I'm addicted now.
Ivan O'Mahoney: I switched from law to journalism ten years ago. I had grand ideas of being a somewhat gung ho war reporter and went to journalism school in NY. But as soon as I was given a camera, I realized my future was behind it, not in front of it. The challenge to create a compelling visual narrative proved irresistible.
What was the inspiration for "Baghdad High?"
We both had worked in Iraq and were looking to avoid yet another Iraq film told through the eyes of soldiers, religious leaders and warlords. The idea was that if you want to do something about the future of Iraq, you should talk to the future...i.e. go straight to its teenagers. Everyone can sympathize with the troubles and triumphs of being a teenager. It's just that these teens happened to be growing into men in a war zone.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film...
Setting the film in a high school provided an instant chronological narrative. We hoped that by spending a year and selecting the right characters plenty of other compelling storylines would emerge as no one in Iraq is left untouched by the violence and sectarian tension. We had to trust that our associate producers would be able to do the job; that the principal would introduce us to the right kids; and that the kids wouldn't get bored, that they would remain committed to filming their lives for what turned out to be almost 11 months. Ultimately, we found a school that still had an ethnically and religiously mixed body of students which offered a unique perspective on living in Iraq from all sides of the ever increasing divide.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Finding a way to safeguard the students' safety and security and the security of our local producers was without question the biggest challenge. Everything was affected. We had to put in place strict security protocols to which everyone on the ground in Iraq adhered admirably to. Also, since it was too dangerous for us to go to Iraq and film them ourselves, we really had the difficult job of going through over 300 hours worth of tape from the boys. All of that had to be translated, logged, sorted through, culled, culled again, and culled one more time before digitizing what was left. Then we had to honestly weave and re-weave the boys' narratives into an intelligible and satisfying story.
What are your goals for the Tribeca Film Festival?
Our goal was to get here and have as many people as possible see the film in the U.S. Thankfully, the film is also airing on HBO in August. We hope that the universality of the teenage themes that the film touches on will make it an enjoyable watch and make people in the West realize that there are plenty of non-extremist and inclusive Iraqis who simply want to get on with life. And finally, we really just want to have some fun, get a bucket of popcorn and watch some films.