Somewhere in the reality space between the latest news of horrific suicide bombings in Baghdad and the theatrical release last week of the slick, nonfiction high school movie American Teen lies the HBO documentary Baghdad High, airing Monday. In 2006, four Iraqi teens were given cameras so they could record their senior year, after which producer-directors Ivan O’Mahoney and Laura Winter oversaw the shaping of the hundreds of hours of footage into a finished film. That this quartet of Baghdad boys are from different ethno-religious backgrounds — Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and Christian — is a tantalizing setup, until you quickly realize that these labels don’t appear to affect their easygoing friendship with each other, their love of Western icons like Beckham and Britney, or make much difference when, as one kid points out, anyone venturing onto the streets of Baghdad could become the victim of a stray bullet or a roadside bomb or a kidnapping.
By the end of the movie, they just want to make it through their final exams without having to spend another year in school, especially in a city of power outages and curfews and random violence — which makes Baghdad High something of a relief when the kids’ normality in the face of adversity shines through. For one thing, it appears the suckiness of homework is an instant bonder. When the Christian boy, Anmar, says he would rather spend a year at home than go to Arabic class, a Muslim chum next to him looks into the camera and announces, with that particularly universal attitude of bored adolescent pride, that he’s not going to Islamic studies.
“Today,” he says, smiling, “I’m a Christian.”