For far too long in the mainstreaming Western entertainment industry, films have been about the Middle East from the perspective of foreigners not nationals of the countries themselves. A potential major step to counter that trend came with the release of “Mosul” last week, the first all-Arabic film to release on Netflix in the streaming service’s history.
This should be celebrated in and of itself but far more interesting is the story of the actual film. It tracks a group of elite Iraqi ‘SWAT’ policemen on an undisclosed mission towards the end of the battle to win Iraq’s second city from the clutches of ISIS. This moment in history warrants far more attention than it had at the time. It was reportedly the largest urban military operation since World War Two. An entrenched opposition force that knew no limits to what tactics it would resort too, faced an unusual coalition of attackers; including the US, Kurdish Peshmerga, Iranian-backed militias and of course the Iraqi military themselves.
Whilst the film was made in Morocco it opens to drone footage of the aftermath of the nine-month long battle. Rubble, rubble and then more rubble is all that you can see across the horizon. In the film when pinned down by enemy fire the SWAT team reject calling in an American airstrike because “they flatten everything because they don’t have to rebuild anything”.
The landscape feels less urban and more like an alien moonscape, but critically by putting Iraqis as the central heroes, gradually the city begins to take shape and you realise the terrible consequences of war amongst people's homes and families. Shellshocked children wonder towards the safer parts of the cities wheeling the corpses of their parents. Unlike films portraying the US experience in the country, ‘Mosul’ immediately shows an interaction between the SWAT and civilians that never could be replicated by a foreign army.
Indeed, in the midst of a ruined city the SWAT commander who is himself from Mosul, endeavours to put rubbish he finds in the bin. When they come across an Iranian commander a debate as to what he is doing in an Iraqi city drags the discussion all the way back to the times of Babylon. The key and central components of the story are that of men fighting for each other and for their own city. One speaks to the future and how they need to have “more children as that brings our city back quicker”.
Whilst the Directors were American, it was produced by Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed Al-Daradji. The film was based on a true story and dedicated to members of the Nineveh SWAT team themselves which is a nice touch. Combat scenes are intense although as they are happening at the tail end of the battle you feel that the story of the main liberation of the city, when mass carnage ensued, has still yet to be told.
The film is based on a New Yorker piece that explored how the key criteria of recruitment to the SWAT team was having been wounded or lost a family member to ISIS. It reminds the viewers of the fact that ISIS fighters were a largely domestic force and that in such an uncivil civil conflict, trust was determined by base motivations such as revenge. Yet the 6,000 or so ISIS fighters that held the city hostage would shoot fleeing civilians, booby trap buildings and sexually abuse the wives of those Mosul residents who couldn’t protect them. Unlike other members of the Iraqi military who if captured by ISIS would be offered the chance to convert and switch sides, members of the SWAT team were supposedly executed on site, such was their feared reputation amongst ISIS militants.
If ‘Mosul’ proves popular with Western audiences, and the reach of Netflix during a global pandemic lockdown is an excellent platform, then who knows what it could do for the war film genre in a region beset with it. Could Syria, almost ten years into its own ‘Apocalypse Now’ pursuit of darkness, get a fictional film that could do justice to the pain that the country has gone through for instance?
by : jamse danselow