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Once Upon a Time in Iraq’s James Bluemel: “The invasion caused mass chaos”

The director of the acclaimed series on Britain’s blindness to the consequences of war.

By Megan Gibson

About 90 minutes into Once Upon a Time in Iraq, James Bluemel’s award-winning five-hour documentary on the Iraq invasion and its aftermath, we meet Alaa Adel. She is an astonishingly poised Iraqi woman – deep facial scars spread out from the centre of her left cheek like the tentacles of an octopus. Archive footage from 2003 shows her as a child at home, her scars then fresh, her right eye newly missing, a recent casualty of an insurgent attack on the American occupying forces in the streets of Baghdad. Now an adult and speaking to Bluemel’s camera, Adel explains, “When shrapnel enters the body, it rotates and damages everything in its path.”

It is, like so many haunting lines from Bluemel’s sweeping, character-driven documentary, a startling and precise allegory for the US-led invasion of Iraq. The series, which aired in 2020 to critical acclaim and won the 2021 Bafta for best factual series, relies on a small, carefully selected “cast” of Iraqi civilians, American soldiers and journalists. Collectively, they depict the war and the years of foreign occupation, sectarian violence and terrorism that followed.

Adel almost wasn’t part of that cast. After finding the archive footage of her as a child, Bluemel knew he wanted to interview her. “She was the archetype of her country’s extraordinary presence: she was a strong-minded, strong-willed young girl who was not beaten down by this war,” Bluemel told me over the phone from an editing suite in north London where he was working on his next project. But his team couldn’t track her down. “Pretty much in the final days of the shoot, our fixer came running in and said, ‘I found her.’” As an adult, Adel still in many ways embodied the effects of the conflict – in her eagerness to talk, her composure in grief, and her matter-of-fact desire for vengeance. (“I hope that what happened to Iraq happens to America,” she says calmly at one point. “I never wished harm on anyone – but I wish it upon them.”) Of all the unforgettable characters in Bluemel’s film, Adel is the one who has stuck with him the most. “She encapsulated a lot of the feelings I had about what went on there.”

[See also: The road to war in Iraq]

Bluemel grew up north of London, and his own memories of the invasion centre heavily around his participation in the capital’s anti-war march on 15 February 2003. He was in his twenties and a fledgling film-maker at the time, and he remains struck by the scale of the protests. “Six million people marched [that weekend across the world],” he said, his anger audible. “You think about those six million people and think: they were on the right side of history.”

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Yet he didn’t land on the idea of making a film about the war until he was in the midst of working on his 2016 documentary Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, which tracks in detail the harrowing journeys of a few refugees at the height of the so-called migrant crisis. He was disturbed by politicians and the right-wing press employing rhetoric that demonised those fleeing the conflict in Syria and the Middle East, while refusing to examine Britain’s own role in the violence. He embarked on a new project, one which took the “grammar” of Exodus: using personal accounts from captivating people in order to tell the deeper story of how this crisis came about. “What caused this mass chaos – the rise of Isis and the refugee crisis – if you follow the breadcrumb trail back, you arrive at the 2003 invasion.”

As he wanted to focus on people who had been there at the time, Bluemel knew he had to find a strong cast of Iraqi interview subjects. They would need to not only be insightful and eloquent, but accessible to viewers from Brighton or Boston. “This film wasn’t made for an Iraqi audience, they know what happened,” Bluemel said. “This film was made for a Western audience, and therefore I needed people that would be easy for Westerners to relate to.”

One way he achieved this was by leavening the devastating subject matter with humour. Bluemel spent several days interviewing each subject for the film, and the discussions could be wide-ranging. He knew from his time in Iraq that Iraqis have a particularly well-honed sense of humour, “which is always erased in the news or in lots of other documentaries that I’ve seen about that region. And I thought that was a shame, because actually, humour is one of the key ways we can relate to people.” On camera we see Waleed Nesyif, who worked as a translator in Baghdad at the outset of the war, watching old footage of himself from the time. “Am I wrong or did I sound like Borat?” he says merrily. “Hello, people of America!”

Bluemel also includes extraordinary footage of the moments between interview sessions where the subjects are being filmed but appear unguarded. They ask their own questions or for reassurance that they don’t “sound naive”; they smoke endless cigarettes and cigars; they laugh over old photographs or cry at archive footage. One unforgettable subject, a bearded US Marine with Rambo-like biceps, requests swigs of tequila straight from the bottle – a moment that contextualises his over-the-top swagger, his bizarrely candid admittance that he mistakenly killed civilians, including children, and his insistence that the invasion was “worth it”. “It has to be worth it,” he says, his voice brittle, after a brief silence. “What’s the alternative?”

[See also: Explainer: The A-Z of the Iraq War]

Bluemel told me that by the time he was sitting down with each interviewee, he’d already met them many times. “They knew what I was going to ask so there’s no surprises coming,” he said. “None of these interviews were gotcha moments.”

There were, however, surprises. One of the film’s most startling narratives comes from US Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Sassaman, an officer who went into the war with the intention of implementing democracy but whose unit soon became known for its aggressive, brutal treatment of the locals. Sassaman’s military career ended after men in his unit forced two detained Iraqi civilians to jump into the Tigris River.

Bluemel knew that he would be asking Sassaman difficult questions throughout his sessions, so when the former soldier first sat down with him, “I wanted to start with something that would be perhaps a nice memory for him.” Bluemel replayed footage of the initial days after the invasion, when Iraqi children would greet American troops with joyous hugs and cheers. “And he completely broke down into tears watching it,” Bluemel told me. “I thought this was not the reaction I was expecting at all.” In the subsequent recorded interview, Sassaman is clearly emotional as he responds to the footage. “The kids were great. Kids just want to be kids. And we robbed those kids of that,” he says, his voice catching. “And that’s just it – war as an institution is pure evil.” Looking back, Bluemel said, Sassaman was “more vulnerable than I had probably understood”.

[See also: Jack Straw: the Iraq War split the West and aided Putin]

It is impossible to watch the series’ final hour, where Iraqis recount fleeing the country as the rise of Isis wrought a new level of terror on the population, and not think of the debates about refugees in the UK. Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, announced a new bill on 7 March that would require the government to detain and deport every single person who arrives in the UK via the Channel seeking asylum. A not insignificant number of those affected would be fleeing Middle Eastern countries destabilised in some part by the Iraq War.

Bluemel also hears echoes of the past in the Home Office’s treatment of refugees; how both rhetoric and policy paint them as criminals, erasing the complex reality of people’s experiences. “I think it’s disgusting,” he said. “We learn nothing. We’re doing exactly the same thing, criminalising these people again.”

Far too many of us, Bluemel argues, refuse to see our country’s role in conflicts near and far. He is finishing his next project, another five-part documentary called Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland, which will air later this spring. “It spans from the very beginning of the Troubles in 1968 up to the present day,” he explained, and will be told entirely through the stories of ordinary people “from both sides of the community”. It was his work in Iraq that seeded the idea. “It made me think that we had a situation on our doorstep – a sectarian bloody war – which gets massively overlooked. Even though people talk about the Troubles a lot, they talk about it with fatigue. The nuance and the detail and the understanding of it is definitely lost on people that didn’t grow up in it.”

James Bluemel’s work demonstrates the value of giving a voice to those whose lives are upended by government policy. He told me that when he first started pitching Once Upon a Time in Iraq, the response was uniform: “What on Earth can you say about the Iraq War that hasn’t been said before?” But he knew he didn’t need an in-depth inquiry into the policy decisions or access to high-level officials in order to tell the story of the invasion and its brutal legacy. “It’s actually very simple,” he said. “Just ask the people that went through it what it was like.” And then listen.

[See also: Being right about the Iraq war has made the left insufferable]

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe