Fearlessness in children is sometimes something to be admired. They forge new friendships, try new activities, are eager to untangle themselves from the apron strings. But bravery in a war-torn area is altogether different. In the fraught Nowhere to Hide, a nurse named Nori Sharif asks his daughters if they are afraid as the family flees their Central Iraq hometown, which has been seized and destroyed by ISIS.
“No,” they say, smiling. Have they gotten used to the sights and sounds of artillery? “Yes.” This, even after Sharif had asked his son to pray, “God, don’t let the plane bomb us” as they drove.
Though Zaradasht Ahmed is the credited writer-director of this documentary, he entreats Sharif to film as well in order to get closer to people’s stories of everyday life in the Diyala Desert, which has become known as the Triangle of Death in the handful of years since the U.S. withdrew troops in December 2011. At the time, a radio broadcaster claimed that the withdrawal was “greeted with song and dance.” But times have changed, for reasons that have befuddled Iraqis along with the rest of the world.
After a short prologue, Ahmed starts here. He follows Sharif as the medic details how there’s been “a new reality” at his hospital since the 2003 invasion in terms of injuries, which were no longer mundane. Matter-of-fact yet upbeat—he often seems amused while setting up his camera—Sharif includes footage of his home life and says, “Honestly, my life is good. I have everything I need.” Yet every day he sees patients and neighbors whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed by the war. There’s a man whose mutilated foot keeps him from working. Video of a child who died because his mother couldn’t afford medication. “An army of orphans.” And a young man whose friends were killed while bullets left his body ravaged and paralyzed. “For all these people, the war entered their lives like a tornado,” he says. “For them, the war is still going on.”
Remarkably, some of these victims share Sharif’s silver-lining attitude, such as a man who was twice kidnapped by al-Qaeda and is now in a wheelchair. Yet he muses about worse fates, such as if he had accidentally killed people while working as a crane driver. The luckier ones, meanwhile, question and lament the state of their country. While a group of medics hear about children who were beheaded, one asks, “Beheadings? In our history, this is not normal. I cannot understand it. We have been living here together for decades without conflict, and now all this. Why?” Sharif points out that whereas American tanks were easy to hide from, now the danger of internal conflicts is invisible, with “sticky bombs” placed underneath cars and suicide bombers showing up at funerals.
Nowhere to Hide may not offer answers, but it does offer insight crucial for the outside world. Viewers will be rattled by quietly shot footage of the immediate, bloody aftermaths of bombs and gunfire. A son identifying his father in a body bag is an impossibly wrenching moment. Kids who “of course” want to study and have careers are yanked out of school because their parents have no other way to earn money. Ahmed includes a peaceful 2013 protest, but it isn’t powerful enough to overtake ISIS and the record numbers of casualties that spiked after the troops withdrew. Music is unnecessary, and the director smartly keeps it minimal.
As for Sharif, he and his family ended up traveling to 13 locations before they found safety and a chance to rebuild. “There’s a strange sort of quiet,” he says as the people he shares shelter with rebuild as well. There’s no singing or dancing. And Sharif likely no longer believes what he did in 2011: “To be independent is a beautiful thing.”
Nowhere to Hide opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.