Um Qusay, dressed in a black, sequined abaya and hijab, takes a slow drag on her cigarette as she recalls the execution of Iraqi men in her village who tried to assassinate their president. A Rambo-esque former US marine readies himself with a swig of tequila before sharing his violent tale.
Once Upon a Time in Iraq, a new documentary series airing on BBC Two from tonight, conveys the complex road to the Iraq war through the eyes of civilians, journalists and soldiers, 17 years on from an invasion that has fractured the world.
“I didn’t want some big Iraq story that we can’t connect to,” the director, James Bluemel, tells me over Zoom. Bluemel is best known for his Bafta-winning series on the Syrian refugee crisis, Exodus: Our Journey To Europe, which saw escapees given cameras to document their perilous crossings. “I didn’t want to interview decision-makers or men in suits – that’s been done before. I wanted to create a bridgeway of empathy to people you wouldn’t normally hear from.”
Bluemel’s documentary is an entry point to the stories as well as the psyches of the participants, where moments of silence carry as much drama as their testimonies. This is starkly honest, harrowing and essential viewing. We see remorse in the heavy looks of former US soldiers. We are shown how Saddam Hussein was feared and admired for his charisma and the stability he brought. One man even calls him a “style icon”. “Iraq is full of contradictions,” says Bluemel. “It had to be told by the people in their own way – and they offer far more than one narrative.”
Waleed Nesyif was 18 and a member of the only heavy metal band in Iraq when George W Bush began the invasion on his country. As a teen infatuated with the fast food and democracy of the West, Nesyif welcomed it. “It was important to be honest in this documentary,” he says. “I was not anti-invasion. Dare I say it, I was excited. The documentary process reminded me of who I used to be. James and his team put me at total ease, so I could bring my two different selves to the story. My father told me, ‘A true friend is the mirror with which you see yourself through’, and that’s what this is.”
The darkened studio where participants are interviewed serves, at times, as a confession booth. The former US colonel Nate Sassaman first appears as a likable soldier who entered Iraq with a wish to build bridges with local sheikhs, but later reveals his Achillean thirst for retribution following the loss of one of his officers in an insurgent attack. “Complicated people” are what Bluemel is interested in: “When you feel conflicted feelings about Sassaman, it’s a good thing, because that’s how he feels about himself.”
Building trust from the participants is crucial to the nuance and power of the series, with many of the voices featured relaying their experiences for the first time. This is the case for Alaa, who was a 12-year-old schoolgirl on her way home from an exam when she was struck with shrapnel from one of the first roadside bombs planted by insurgents intended for American forces. She lost her eye, and her face was scarred for life.
Moments of light relief are rare in this documentary, but when they do come they are mainly provided by Nesyif. One scene shows him taking part, along with other young Iraqis, in a live television link-up with a group of young Americans. They discuss Metallica, the Backstreet Boys and war. “I thought my English sounded so great, but I actually sound like Borat!” he jokes. “This is the one true Iraqi thing left in me: when someone dies, you make a joke, when a bomb goes off you make a joke. It’s the only way to go on,” he laughs. It’s a laugh that we hear throughout the series, which skims off the chilling scenes he relates. We watch as he witnesses his country driven not towards the “land of dreams” he hoped for after a lifetime under a dictator’s regime, but towards years of chaos, sectarian violence and extremism.
“We sowed the seeds of Isis in 2003. We did,” gasps Sassaman in the opening episode, before breaking down. Bluemel says the genesis of the idea for the series was indeed seeded in the current moment, and Europe’s reaction to the refugee crisis. “I was angry at the far right for blaming refugees and angry seeing the rise of nationalism in Europe. There is no sense of collective responsibility for destabilising the Middle East and for the rise of extreme Islamic terrorism. Our fingerprints are all over this.”
It is Bluemel’s hope that the series will make people sit up and listen, and help them connect and empathise with the voices featured. Nesyif agrees. “Empathy is what we lack the most right now. This documentary offers the context that the world is missing. Ever since the demonisation of Iraq started, Saddam Hussein has been the cover story. [But] no one is pure evil and no one is pure good. The human face of this documentary is its greatest achievement.”
Once Upon a Time in Iraq begins tonight, 9pm on BBC Two. The accompanying book is out on 16 July