Nowhere to Hide

Western media rarely focuses on the bloodshed of Middle East violence, but documentaries like Zaradasht Ahmed’s Nowhere To Hide offer a sombre and much-needed redress to our myopia. Iraq faded from Western headlines after the War on Terror supposedly concluded, but as Nowhere To Hide reveals, 2011 – the year the American troops pulled out of Iraq – did not mark the end of violence in the country.

The documentary begins in 2014, showing a desolate, windy desert plain. An Iraqi man, Nori Sharif, stumbles through the frame, perspiring under an unrelenting sun as he wearily explains the difficulty in finding clean water for his children and hoping that God has them in his plans. The movie then flashes back to three years prior; the same man looks almost indistinguishable; buildings are still standing, people are milling about. Back then, Sharif is a happy-go-lucky Iraqi medic (as happy-go-lucky as one can be living in war-torn Iraq, anyway) with a young family and the promise of a more stable post-war future for his four children.

We come to understand precisely why Sharif and his countrymen’s optimism begins to fade, thanks to Ahmed’s savvy decision to give Sharif his own camera to document the graphic aftermath of local violence the medic witnesses on the job in Jalawla.

Sharif’s reticence in taking on such a responsibility is soon replaced by a quick determination to capture everything he sees. Sometimes it’s only the difference in visual quality that determines whether we’re seeing Sharif’s or Ahmed’s footage, as both are quite shaky and occasionally tunnel-visioned in their framing and composition. But Sharif’s style in shooting – a roaming camera that focuses on the small physical details – is unabashed in showing us the gory details.

Perhaps it’s partially due to Sharif’s job, which has undoubtedly desensitized him. We see corpses, body bags, glass and debris on the floor mixed into pools of blood, and the charcoal-y vestiges of cars and other objects blown to smithereens. Survivors of bombs explain how difficult it has become for them to make a living after one or more limbs become disabled, and Sharif doesn’t shy away from showing deformities up close. He is as interested in making us witness to the physical aftermath as the psychological aftermath of both the U.S. war and the subsequent instability that festers like a disease in the region, to the point that Sharif and his family are forced to leave when ISIS takes over Jalawla.

The documentary becomes increasingly chilling, because as gruesome as the blood splatters and bombed-out wreckage appear, the Iraqis appear quite normalized given the traumatizing amount of violence. It’s just another day, just another bomb. If it doesn’t happen nearby, smoke clouds in the distance haunt their peripheral vision indicating that somewhere nearby, someone else suffered the trauma this time around.

Sharif and his neighbours only once discuss the ever-changing roster of different ethnic/religious struggles that define the violence, because such information matters little to them — it’s the visceral aftermath that affects them, not who’s at war. As the film gets closer and closer to 2014, the people around Sharif grow fewer, abandoned ruins of his city become the new characters and the silence of living in such conditions becomes deafening. By the end, Sharif’s immediate family is thankfully still alive, but the film compellingly has shown us that violence rages on.

Originally published in The National Post (June 29, 2017).