Once Upon A Time In Iraq: Review

Once Upon A Time In Iraq

Once Upon A Time In Iraq: Review. By Ray Lobo.

Does Iraq occupy any mental space in the American mind anymore? Covid, Trump’s antics, and our daily whirlwind of concerns and stressors have pushed Iraq out of our minds. The past; however, is never too far behind, its traces usually return. This week revived Iraq back into our consciousness. Trump pardoned four Blackwater guards who were serving jail sentences for the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians including two children. The tragedy of the invasion of Iraq is still there; it is a stain that cannot be washed away.

The majority of documentaries on Iraq present the typical talking heads — politicians, foreign policy experts, etc. — American soldiers on the front lines, and the perspective of a few Iraqis. Once Upon a Time in Iraq does not simply pepper a few Iraqi voices as contrast against American voices. Once Upon a Time in Iraq is one of the rare documentaries on Iraq made up entirely of Iraqi voices.



The colorful spectrum of interviewees — male, female, young, old, pro- Saddam Hussein, anti-Saddam Hussein, ISIS member — is a testament to British documentarian James Bluemel’s commitment to allowing Iraqis to tell their story (I should also mention the choice of Andy Serkis — whose father was Armenian-Iraqi — as the English narrator being yet another attempt at grounding the documentary in Iraqi soil).

The Iraqi tragedy is magnified as interviewees stress the many missed opportunities by the US in the early days of the invasion. A large segment of Iraq’s youth was infatuated with American pop culture. Waleed Nesyif, a huge Metallica fan, learned English from American songs and movies. He felt stifled under Saddam’s regime. Another interviewee, Um Qusay, tells of the crushing poverty in her village in which she had no choice but to eat chicken feed in order to survive. Many Iraqis were tired of Saddam’s thugs killing and torturing their family members. They were also fed up with Saddam’s network of informants — a system reminiscent of the East German Stasi. In short, many Iraqis saw the invasion as a reset. They were willing to work with the invaders.

Once Upon A Time In Iraq.  Image from thetimes.co.uk
Once Upon A Time In Iraq. Image from thetimes.co.uk

US bungling in rebuilding Iraq became evident to Iraqis a few months after the first US bombs dropped. Months passed without electricity or water in Baghdad. Baghdad became known as the “city of garbage.” Setting the groundwork for the West’s extraction of natural resources from Iraq, and using Iraq as a geopolitical chess piece, became evident motives for all Iraqis.

On top of all this, alternating backings of Sunni and Shiite forces by the US, based on the changing fortunes of the campaign, led to a sectarian bloodbath. US support for prime minister Nouri al- Maliki, along with tolerance of his anti-Sunnism and corruption, led to the creation of ISIS. In the ultimate example of what post-invasion Iraq became, Waleed Nesyif tells the story of his difficulty in arranging a get together with high school friends due to sectarian intermingling.

The invasion’s blowback is something that continuously attempts to shake America out of its amnesia — the region is still unstable, and some have argued that American right-wing domestic militias are heavily composed of soldiers who served in Iraq.

The past cannot be rewound and remade. Given the clockwork with which the US is involved in the affair of other countries, and the innocent lives in peril in those countries, documentaries like Once Upon a Time in Iraq remind us how dangerous it is to forget.


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A Cuban-American obsessed with documentaries and anything by Kubrick, Haneke, Breillat, or McQueen. If he is not watching films in his hometown of Miami, he is likely travelling somewhere in Asia enjoying okonomiyaki or pho.

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