'Nowhere to Hide' offers an extraordinarily intimate look at turmoil in Iraq
At the beginning of Zaradasht Ahmed's documentary Nowhere to Hide, Nori Sharif, an Iraqi nurse, says of his beleaguered people: "The war continues on inside them." It is a chilling observation that citizen journalist Nori illustrates again and again, not through his depiction of battle-weary soldiers, but through footage of his neighbors—and, later, him and his family.
Ahmed and his co-filmmaker are the recipients of the 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival's prestigious Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking. Nowhere to Hide will open the festival at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center on June 9. The documentary also garnered the top prize at the 2016 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, and the audience award at this year's Thessaloniki Film Festival. Ahmed is an Iraqi Kurdish filmmaker who resides in Norway. His previous documentaries are The Road to Diarbakir (2010) and Fata Morgana (2013).
In an interview with Ahmed days before the HRWFF screening, he recalled Nori's eagerness to be involved in the documentary. "The project began with me providing cameras to many people in order to document the war in Iraq, during the American-led invasion, but Nori kept sending us a lot of footage that showed me another story of the war," Ahmed says. We are sitting on a park bench in Father Demo Square in Greenwich Village. "It was about things no one knew or had seen at the time. Eventually, Nori's town became the subject of the documentary after a period of escalating violence there." Ahmed met his co-filmmaker through Dr. Husman, who appears briefly in the documentary, alongside fellow surgeon and anti-war activist Dr. Mudhafar. The latter still works in Iraq, and Nori occasionally brings him patients.
In 2010, Ahmed taught Nori to use a small camera to record events in and around his Central Iraqi town of Jalawla. "That area, as Nori says in the film, is so dangerous that it is known as the Triangle of Death," Ahmed explains. "It is not a place a documentary filmmaker could go." Nori starts by recording his wife Um Tiba and their four children, and then his work at the town's hospital. In this early footage, it is apparent that he approaches this new task with the same thoughtfulness and intensity he displays as a nurse treating his patients. That footage is followed by scenes from a family wedding, and his conversations with townspeople left scarred and disabled from land mines and crossfire in the ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq.
The documentary progresses to 2011, and the first days of Iraq's independence, after the U.S. troop withdrawal. It is not long before Nori is called to the site of a suicide bombing. Throughout Nowhere to Hide, his footage is seamlessly melded with Ahmed's (by editor Eva Hillström)in order to sustain his point-of-view. "I chose Nori because he is an ordinary guy," the filmmaker says, "and yes, to answer your question, as a Sunni Arab man, Nori is in some danger the whole time because the Sunnis are a minority, and were once a powerful minority. After the invasion in 2003, they were replaced by Shia." The Shiite majority gained power in Iraq as a direct result of the U.S. led-invasion; a Sunni backlash ensued, and now Shiite-Sunni conflicts constitute much of the violence in Iraq.
As Nori drives to work one morning in 2012, he listens as a radio announcer describes one particularly sanguinary month when nearly 2,000 Iraqis died. "When I started my project, I knew there would be a decline in Iraq," Ahmed says. "I never believed that Iraq would go quickly from a dictatorship to a democratic state." The first dramatic turn of events for Nori arrives shortly after that radio show, when a curfew is imposed in Jalawla because of the fighting between the Kurdish Pershmerger and Islamic State militia. "Since the town is on the border of Kurdish territories," Ahmed says, "they are trying to stop the incursion there."
In 2013, a "sticky bomb," the size of a cellphone, is placed in a car, and nearly kills a Jalawla man on his way to morning prayers. Nori films the remains of the car. In another scene, there is a discussion of two schoolboys, the sons of a local farmer, who are kidnapped and beheaded. "The townspeople feel there is a mastermind behind all of this," Ahmed says, "someone who wants disorder because there are no answers for why neighbors are killing neighbors." In 2014, Nori finally decides it is unsafe for his family to stay in his hometown. As he drives out of Jalawla, he hands his camera to his son, and tells him to film the Islamic State flag flying over a government building.
The resulting journey sends Nori and his family to dozens of hiding places, Nori observing at one point that he is now the subject of the documentary he is filming. The profound changes in the Sharifs' lifestyle tracks that of their country's decline into chaos. "Nori is not quite middle-class," Ahmed explains, "but as a nurse he gets a government salary, which as you see in the film, is enough for him to own a home." Nori as a kind of Everyman whose life unravels before our eyes, as he is recording it, distinguishes Nowhere to Hide from previous documentaries. Also, Ahmed's collaboration with Nori is unusual. Under Hussein, a Sunni ruler, Iraqi Kurds were subject to genocide. "Despite the conflict between my ethnicity and Nori's," Ahmed observes, "we managed to build the trust that was the catalyst for the documentary."
Asked about the prevailing feeling in Nowhere to Hide that there is no solution to the violence, Ahmed replies: "I do not say that in my film. I want to say what I have been saying all along, in the 20 different festivals where the documentary has screened, and that is, we have to start caring about each other. It is the only answer." The filmmaker points to subtle abrogations of responsibility in this regard. "What does it mean when someone says that they didn't vote for this president or that president whose policies they disagreed with?" he asks. "Does that mean you don't have to care about people who are suffering as a result of these policies? What is behind the hatred you saw yesterday in the London Bridge attack? It is this feeling that Nori has, that no one cares what happens to him and to his country."
While few who see Nowhere to Hide will easily forget Nori Sharif's sly way of educating his children to the dangers of war, his desperate attempts to protect the family on their perilous search for shelter, uprooting them at any sign of danger, each departure marked by dark smoke rising in the distance, an army base in flames, a village reduced to cinders, what also lingers is this palpable sense of the man, of his pride, his love of family, his nationalism, his faith in God and his unflinching desire to do what is right. Whatever you think of these aspects of his personality, it is impossible to deny Nori's humanity.
Nowhere to Hide opens in New York on June 23 and in L.A., San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver on June 30.