TV Review: Once Upon a Time in Iraq
The five-part documentary series, directed by James Bluemel, tells the traumatic tale of the last 17 years in Iraq
Once Upon a Time in Iraq is a story of war narrated through the reflections and memories of eyewitnesses: Iraqi civilians, American soldiers, New York Times journalists and an ISIS jihadi. The five-part documentary series, directed by James Bluemel and narrated by actor Andy Serkis, tells the traumatic tale of the last 17 years in Iraq: the US-UK led invasion, its aftermath and its legacy.
Individuals caught up in the conflict tell their stories, characters appear and reappear weaving a complex picture of heartbreak and sorrow and retrospective remorse. As the stories are woven together the history of Iraq unfolds. Interviews are interspersed with some disturbing film and photographic footage along with carefully timed snippets of “Alice in Wonderland” speeches declaring mission accomplished, removing Saddam was a blessing or the war is over.
The darkly lit studio, often enveloped in a haze of cigarette smoke, and a single-beam spotlight create an intense intimacy which can at times feel uncomfortable. Time is allowed for retrospection and considered thought. Smiles and laughter are accompanied by long silences, immense sadness, and tears of grief and guilt.
The series opens with footage from a 2003 US-Iraqi TV show in which two groups of teenagers discuss the coming conflict: one group in Baghdad, the other in New York. An 18 year old Waleed Neysif from Baghdad is heard saying, “Let’s live a happy life, and let’s rock and roll.” Tracked down by the documentary’s producers, Neysif plays a crucial part in the telling of Iraq’s story. In the first episode, he laughs at his former self and his love for all things American - burgers, blue jeans, rock music - confessing he was excited at the prospect of war, hopeful that a new Iraq would emerge as “one of the good countries in the world”. As his story unfolds we watch the myth of Iraq’s deliverance unravel “into the nightmare we are stuck in”.
Together we witness the moment Neysif realised war was not like the movies. Filmed on his mobile phone while working as an interpreter we see Neysif stunned, speechless, silently poking through the remains of a Beduin home, where he finds a child’s half-buried shoe in the desert sand. The child’s distraught father leafs through charred school books and explains how the entire family, bar himself and his brother, had been killed by three US helicopters in an airstrike. Watching with us Neysif drags on his cigarette and slowly describes how he felt in that moment, that “People can’t be that bad. They can’t be that evil.” The look in his eyes reveals he now realises they can.
In direct contrast to the quiet dignity of Waleed, later in episode one, we meet Rudy Reyes, a former US Marine. Reyes is a Rambo-like caricature, all bulging muscles and tattoos. Swigging from a bottle of tequila before beginning his story, Reyes tells us how he was part of a violent killing machine, gunning civilians and combatants alike if they crossed his path.
“We went three weeks straight with no sleep. Straight fighting….. three weeks, yeah. No armour, no doors, no roofs, just very capable, violent professionals. It was as heavy and as personal and as bloody as you can imagine.” Caught up in his recollections of the adrenalin rush, Reyes described the advance on Baghdad as “god-like”.
An impressive performance of bravado, only faltering at the final hurdle when off-camera Reyes is asked if it was worth it - in that one moment even Rambo looked uncomfortable.
The trajectory of Iraq’s immediate post-war reconstruction is told through the story of another US soldier, Lt Col Nate Sassaman. Wracked with remorse, Sassaman tells how he took “a rocket launcher to attack a donkey cart”, and how America’s reconstruction plan created the “perfect storm for an insurgency.”
Sassaman’s story is a painful one of retribution and guilt. Following the death of a soldier under his command he became crazed with vengeance, resulting in imprisoning an entire village in barbed wire and persecuting its inhabitants. Any Iraqi who “openly defied US authority” was seen as game. Sassaman’s regime of terror was replicated throughout Iraq, with Sassaman himself highlighted as an exemplar in how to bring the insurgency under control.
Today he is “trapped" by his guilt, pointing out how his actions, America's actions, from 2003 “sowed the seeds of ISIS.” He is a powerful witness, as are all those who have such a Damascene conversion, but his appearance is no easier to watch for all his remorse. He is alive, goes unpunished and is free to tell his tale - which is more than can be said for many of his victims.
If the character of Sassaman is the most conflicted, the chapter on Fallujah is the most compromised. Here the story is taken forward by two New York Times journalists who tell of their part in the death of all-American soldier Billy Miller in the battle for Fallujah. The mission in which Billy died was instigated at the behest photo-journalist Ashley Gilbertson. To set the scene we are exposed to home-videos of Billy as a golden haired little boy and are taken to his grieving parent’s home. Although the episode includes a story of an Iraqi family caught up in the bombardment, the focus is unquestionably on Billy and the guilt felt by Ashley Gilbertson.
In one scene we see the Fallujah night sky lit up with White Phosphorous. New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins tells of how he was hit by debris and the stuff burnt right through his pack. Yet we are never told of how this ‘rain of fire’ devastated the civilian population, or of how people were found dead with bodies burned and clothes intact, suggesting the use of some form of uranium. The happy ending story of an Iraqi family, one of many too poor to leave town, whose two year old child looses his leg but whose life is saved by being sent to an American hospital, is the only account of how the civilians of Fallujah fared. To ignore the devastation caused by US chemical weapons and the long-term impact on infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia on Fallujah’s citizens is a stark omission.
But there are many moving narratives in the series: there’s the story of a young US soldier guarding Saddam Hussein during his trial; the story of a Iraqi woman, Sally, who is filmed reading her childhood diary and finding a picture of a tree with roots of blood. As she studies the picture she remembers how she witnessed dead bodies from the streets being thrown into pick-up trucks, and vividly recalls the smell. We hear how comedian and journalist Ahmed Albasheer thought living under Al Qaeda in Ramadi was preferable to living in Baghdad under Maliki, and how in the ‘liberation’ of Mosul, the beautiful city known for its mosques, churches, ancient houses and shrines, everything was destroyed. “My city has gone,” mourns a former inhabitant.
The story of Iraq and US-UK adventures in the Middle East is perhaps most graphically summed up in the interview with Alaa Adel, a dignified young woman who bears the scars of war vividly on her face. In 2003 she was a little girl. On her way home from school Alaa was caught up in an insurgency attack in which her face was shredded with shrapnel and an eye ripped out. She was lucky to escape with her life. Several of her friends were less lucky. With tears rolling down her scared face Alaa calmly echoed the sentiments of the insurgency, “I hope what happened to Iraq happens to America …I’ve never wished harm on anyone, but I wish it on them.” She went on, “the war was a catastrophe. We all became afraid and we still live in fear.”
Bluemel’s aim was to make people sit up and listen, connect and empathise. It does. To hear the voices of Iraqi civilians is unusual and for that alone the series is a success. Bluemel has provided us with a moving account of the reality of war, be it with some notable flaws - the equal footing given to the suffering of the Americans and Iraqis and the near silence over the atrocities committed in Fallujah. But for all its flaws the personal stories are powerful and the series compelling.
In the final scene we return to Waleed Neysif. He sits alone in the darkened studio. Gone is the optimistic youth of 2003, along with the smiles and the jokes we were privy to in the first episode; now he looks drained, traumatised by his memories and the bleak outlook he predicts for the future of his homeland. His voice faltering as tells us, “it just never stops”.