Why everyone must watch Once Upon A Time in Iraq

Director James Bluemel's story-telling is expert. But it's as nothing compared to that of the poet philosophers who come before his camera. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

I’m a miser when it comes to superlatives. Critical inflation is enough of a problem in our culture already, without me throwing them around – and use them all up, and what are you going to do when something truly extraordinary comes along? But sitting down to write this, I find that my adjectival parsimony is of no use to me. There will never be enough words, or enough of the right ones, to do justice to James Bluemel’s documentary series, Once Upon A Time in Iraq, which tells the story of what happened in that country from the American-led invasion to the fall of Isis. In the end, all I really want to say is that if you haven’t seen it already (the full series is currently available on BBC iPlayer), you should do so. Consider it, if you care nothing for art, a duty: a relatively painless levy on your freedom, your happiness, your inability not to avert your eyes on those nights when the TV news is just a little bit too upsetting.

The good journalist knows that the right interview hasn’t only to do with bagging the right person: the eye-witness, the keeper of secrets. There’s also the matter of his sensibility. If you require him to be unself-conscious enough to talk freely, you also need him to be self-conscious enough to perform. It’s a question of paragraphs, not sentences. In Once Upon A Time in Iraq, Bluemel’s story-telling is expert. But it’s as nothing compared to that of the poet philosophers who come before his camera.

“The white days turned black,” says Ali Hussein, a former Iraqi army cadet, of the 2014 Camp Speicher massacre, in which Isis systematically butchered more than 1,500 Shia. Such exquisite concision, born of an incomprehension that will be with him until the day he dies, reached a part of me the footage accompanying his testimony could not (on a laptop, he carefully pointed himself out, the sole survivor of the killings, from among dozens of other captured soldiers, all waiting for a bullet). Though it seems a vain hope now, I may one day be able to forget the men we saw digging their own graves; the teenager whose hand had just been chopped off, and who was expected to celebrate the fact, as if he’d offered it up as a gift. Hussein’s words, though, will be with me forever, symbolic as they are of a proud nation falling into irredeemable darkness, and all because of a stupid, ignorant, badly planned adventure cooked up, in part, by a man for whom I voted three times.

Hussein appeared in the last film, a latecomer. There, he joined others by now familiar to us: Waleed Nesyif, the heavy metal fan and former US army translator whose particular intensity brings to mind a pinball machine; Um Qusay, the farmer’s wife from Tikrit, whose sequinned chador is straight out of Las Vegas; Ahmed Al Basheer, the Iraqi comedian whose droll manner covers, but does not quite conceal, the fissures beneath; Omar Mohammed, the professor from Mosul whose crisp, white shirt speaks, not of surrender, but of its opposite; and Dexter Filkins, the American war correspondent with the face that makes him look, even now, like he’s been sleeping 10 to a room in some burned-out Fallujah diwan. You feel, watching all of them, two things. First, that you’re in safe hands. They know. Second, that they’re all, to greater or lesser degrees, suffering the effects of trauma. Here are people who smoke as if their lives depend on it, nicotine as necessary to them as bread.

Bluemel talked to his interviewees in a shadowed room (it once became just a little too inky, the Baghdad electricity having cut out), and by giving them time and space – there were often silences on both sides – induced them to remember in as full a way as they were able. And as they did so, their mouths tensing and eyes closing, there was a sense, if not that this experience was akin to a kind of therapy, that they were thankful. To be heard at last. To be able to tell us all that was done in our names. To pierce the blithe innocence of people who, even as they continue to fetishise the First World War, cannot even tell you the name of the current Iraqi prime minister. 

Once Upon a Time in Iraq 
BBC Two

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 14 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, This house must fall

Free trial CSS