Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Bad Education?

When HBO Documentaries are good, they are sometimes great, as is the case of their recent 80-minute Baghdad High. I thought it might be about drugs, but it turned out to be a portrait of the senior class of Baghdad High School, a post-Saddam educational institution where you can fail in two subjects and take the exams again, but if you fail three, you must start the year all over again. The drop-out rate is exponential, but understandable given the living conditions of the students: huddled in homes during nightly curfews, no light to read by, the teens' studies are interrupted at random, the blue-black skies aflame with insurgent attacks on Iraqis and American troops alike.

The filmmakers did something novel and remarkably effective: they lent each of four seniors camcorders and told them to film their own lives and the those of their classmates. The four young men shot their world for roughly a year, from 2006 to 2007, and then the documentarians edited the results, cutting back and forth from one poignant student’s story to another. Make no mistake about it: Iraqi boys aren’t much different from those at home when it comes to musical tastes: one is shown memorizing a song by Madonna "because I like it," while some of the others seem most absorbed by rap and hip-hop.

Yet there is a major cultural difference between Iraqi teens and their American peers, a cultural difference that is striking in the documentary. The Iraqis seem more affectionate toward others of their sex. In fact, several long shots show them not only embracing but kissing each other repeatedly on the cheeks. True, grown men in Islamic countries do the same, and even Mexicans are famous for their abrazos (lit. "to arms"), which some wags yet contend was a custom designed to keep the other guy's hands off his pistols.

But can you actually imagine two male high school seniors in the U.S. openly kissing each other on the cheek -- three to four times -- as an everyday greeting or parting? They would be stigmatized, made the subject of ridicule, and driven, possibly, to the Krafft-Ebbingesque conclusion of Gus Van Sant's Elephant, where the Colombine-like school shoot-out follows a scene of the teen assassins showering together.

In Baghdad High, two of the boys in particular seem almost mystically (think of Rumi's school) entangled, Ali and Mohammed. When one, Ali, escapes the unpredictable violence and hellish life of Baghdad (imagine draining your car of gas in order to power a generator for light) for the peace and quiet of Kurdish-held Erbil , the other -- the short, chubby Mohammed -- all but pines away for the friend. In Erbit, however, Ali only misses the action he saw at home. Like an American teen, he keeps saying how “bored” he is. My guess is that the violence in Baghdad gives these youths an adrenalin rush, but they've clearly wearied of it: by the time of the surge, most Iraqis were ready to see the invaders go home.

I was left to wonder -- and when was the last time you saw a movie that made you think? -- if the filmmakers hadn't shown us what might be called the Balkanization of the Mideast. By witness of so much violence at such a young age, these four boys may grow up to be men who think violence is acceptable and, nursing old wounds, turn into tomorrow's terrorists. There was warmth in the boys, but it grew from their naive fascination with the camcorders and their play-making, rough stuff, braggadocio, &c. There was also a hopelessness, resentment, and perhaps insensitivity.

These suspicions are only confirmed by interviews with the adults: one of the boy's mothers, a burka-headed, careworn woman, says Saddam should not have been given a trial, just execution, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." She actually said that! No matter that Gandhi said that if we all took an eye for an eye, everyone would be blind. I can almost imagine her reply: "Gandhi didn't know Saddam Hussein."

When told Saddam had just been hanged, she reiterates, "That wasn't enough for him." What on earth would she have had the temporary government do, cut off his fingers, one each day? Then his toes, one a day. Then the feet and hands for four days, &c.

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