NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hayder is trying to memorize the words to a song by U.S. pop star Britney Spears, Anmar is worried because his girlfriend has not called and Ali and his best friend Mohammad wrestle each other as they watch TV.
All four boys are regular Iraqi teenagers, except that they attended high school in a war zone and have used handheld video cameras to document their final year for a documentary called “Baghdad High,” airing on U.S. cable channel HBO on Monday.
The film follows the 17-year-olds’ 2006-2007 school year, as the country was on the verge of spiraling into a sectarian civil war and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was convicted of crimes against humanity and hanged.
“I wanted to show everybody what life was like in Iraq with the war and how people got to school and do their normal lives with everything that’s happening there,” Ali, now 18, told Reuters in interview.
“We’re like the same as any students, any high school students, that live in America — we’re the same,” said Ali, who moved to America with his family about six months ago. “We like the same movies, the same music, the same things.”
Much of the film shows the boys doing what most teenagers do — playing sports, dancing in their bedrooms, playing around at school. But the ongoing war is never far from their minds with gunfire and explosions a regular occurrence.
Ali films himself watching the news. “Good news? There’s no good news,” he says, before the electricity goes off — again. “Is it my job to be an oil mechanic? I should be studying,” he tells the camera as he tries to start a generator.
Laura Winter, co-director of the film, said the boys — Ali, a Shia Kurd, Mohammad, who has one Sunni parent and one Shia parent, Hayder, a Shia, and Anmar, a Christian — are the “real Iraq.”
As a Christian, Anmar is excused from Islamic studies, but he is regularly joined by Muslim friends pretending to be Christian so they can play soccer instead.
While all four boys express concern in the film about the situation in Iraq, they find solace in humor. Ali is shown making a pretend hostage video with Mohammad, and then teasing his friend for his smelly feet.
“If Chemical Ali really wanted to destroy the north he should have fired a rocket with Mohammad’s socks in it,” he jokes, referring to Ali Hassan al-Majeed, a Saddam henchman who used chemicals to attack Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s.
Winter said the principal of the boy’s school, Tariq bin Ziad, chose Ali, Mohammad, Anmar and Hayder — who started high school in 2003 when the U.S. led an invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam — because he knew they would be discreet.
The boys were trained in how to use the cameras and warned not to play “news cameraman.” They filed more than 300 hours of footage, which has been woven into an 80-minute film that has already screened by the BBC in Britain and at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival in March.
“This is really just about living. This is about how people live through this crazy insane time,” said Winter, whose co-director was Ivan O’Mahoney. “Everyone’s talking about the future, but we never talk with the future. That’s really what this film is — they are the future of Iraq.
“I want people to take away from this film that there’s a lot of hope,” she said.
Ali, who said he hopes to return to Iraq one day, agreed.
“The Iraqi people are really such peaceful people,” he said. “They just want to live like all the other peoples. They just do their best to be civilized.”
Editing by Anthony Boadle