November 27, 2017 – This remarkable documentary film, mostly shot and narrated by a medical worker caught in the middle of the “Triangle of Death” in central Iraq between the forces of warring ISIS and militia fighters from 2011 to 2016. Nori Sharif and his family flee their home and move desperately over a dozen times in those years, trying to escape the violence that surrounds them.
This movie is a window into Iraq after the U.S. occupation ended and chaos reigned. Kurdish Norwegian director Zaradasht Ahmed loaned his camera to Nori and showed him how to use it. Nori used the camera to document the damage done by the Iraq War, the wounded people, the widows and orphans struggling to survive. Later in the film, Nori and his own family became refugees in their own country, trying to survive the bullets and bombs that closed in on them everywhere they go.
The movie opens with Nori trying to survive in a remote desert area, then flashes back to 2011 in the city of Jalawla, about 90 miles north of Baghdad in Diyala Province where Nori and his family live comfortably. Nori works in a local emergency hospital. He asks a patient “Have you been injured before?” The man says he hasn't, and Nori jokes, “then you are not from Iraq.”
Asked by the film's director how he feels about the Americans pulling out of Iraq, Nori says, “It's a new beginning for us Iraqis. Like many others I am happy to see the country freed. To be independent is a beautiful thing,” while acknowledging that many people still carry the scars of war. Soon after that interview, he takes the camera and begins the process of helping to make his own documentary.
Over the next three years we follow Nori and his family as conditions deteriorate in Jalawla and the fighting closes in. Nori participates in a demonstration of Sunni Muslims who want better representation in the Iraqi government. Sunni's who were once in power, were largely purged from government and army positions. Later, disgruntled Sunnis would form the backbone of ISIS, and its sympathizers.
Nori stayed on at the hospital after all the doctors left. Eventually, he is forced to flee, packing his family in his car and heading out into an unknown destination and an uncertain future, hoping to find somewhere safe. But in every town they came to they hear explosions and gunfire. The chaotic battles between ISIS, various Shia militia groups, Kurdish fighters and government forces are especially dangerous for civilians because of shifting allegiances, informants and sympathizers. Nori does not know who to trust.
The situation of Nori and his family becomes increasingly desperate with the passage of time. There is a resolution of sorts to Nori's plight, but since this narrative ends in 2016, there is more to this story not covered in this film. More on that later.
This film is a telling slice of life, of people trapped in dangerous, chaotic circumstances. It is a unique collaboration between director Zaradasht Ahmed and Nori Sharif. Nori is clearly a deeply empathetic person, who becomes hardened and desperate, but he never loses his humanity, nor his hope. Despite all the chaos and destruction, Nori says, “the will to build will always be stronger than the force of destruction.” This film rates a B+.
Like all good documentaries, this movie made me wonder what happened to Nori and the people of Jalawla after ISIS moved out of that city. The film makes it appear as if the city is destroyed and abandoned and that Nori had no hope of moving back, and that may have been true when filming ended.
Some of Jalawla's residents did move back, and they did rebuild, without government help (Jalawla is in a disputed area claimed by both Iraqi and Kurdish governments). Electricity has been restored, businesses and a school have reopened. The bridge over the Diyala River has been rebuilt. All of this was done by the people of Jalawla themselves, helped by international aid organizations (some of them Israeli-funded).
I do hope that Nori and his family were able to go home again and join the people of Jalawla who love their city enough to raise it from ruin with their own hands. Hope is something we have in common.
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