Nowhere to Hide, which is playing at Facets Multimedia for one more night, is a valuable document of postoccupation Iraq. It’s brilliantly structured and edited, but those virtues are secondary to the film’s value as a firsthand document of life in Iraq during the last several years. In scene after scene, Nowhere presents eye-opening footage of life amid war and deprivation; these images make the movie important viewing for anyone concerned about the fate of Iraq following the U.S. occupation. I expect it to stay with me for a very long time.
The film begins with a shot of a man walking through an empty desert landscape. He approaches the camera and bewails his struggle to find water for his children; clearly he’s in a dire situation. Nowhere will go back to show how he reached this point, but this opening scene sets the tone for everything that follows, placing themes of desperation and survival front and center. Following a fade to black, two title cards appear, reading “Three Years Earlier” and “December 2011.” A few scenes introduce us to the man who first appeared in the desert. His name is Nori Sharif, and he works as a nurse in the central Iraqi city of Jalawla. He has held this job for 13 years; he says he likes the work, as it allows him to help others. Though his position has been difficult since the U.S. occupation began (he regularly treats victims of gunfire and bomb explosions), Sharif has managed to maintain a relatively normal life outside the hospital. He has a wife and four children and many friends in his community. He appears to be safe.
After this brief profile, director Zaradasht Ahmed asks Sharif if he will take over filming and document his life as Iraq passes from U.S. occupation to self-rule. Sharif agrees, appreciating the opportunity to share his experience with the rest of the world. At first he doesn’t film himself; rather, he turns the camera on neighbors and patients who are victims of the war. Sharif introduces a number of tragic cases. Some have lost limbs, others have lost family members. One man describes being kidnapped twice by members of al-Qaeda. These stories are despairing, and the close-ups of wounds and disfigured limbs can be stomach-turning. Yet a sense of perseverance runs through these testimonies. Everyone Sharif documents seems to be doing his or her best to maintain a normal life despite the horrors he or she has been through. The presence of good neighbors like Sharif adds to the semblance of normalcy, fostering a sense of community and inspiring the people of Jalawla to push on.
These passages of Nowhere to Hide succeed in humanizing the ongoing conflict in Iraq. News reports about the nation tend to focus on statistics—how many people have been shot or killed in this or that particular month—or on government decisions that shape the country as a whole. Ahmed considers what it’s actually like to live there, how daily life continues for those who aren’t part of the army or the government. His subjects are those who’ve been overlooked by the news, the men and women who don’t consider themselves political but simply want to get on with their lives. Sadly, getting on isn’t an option for some of the people Sharif films. In one passage, Sharif turns the camera on a family who pulled their young boys out of school after the father became injured and unable to work. Sharif shows the boys collecting scrap metal and plastic to sell to junk dealers—this is the family’s only source of income.
Watching Nowhere to Hide, one might marvel at the fact that Sharif has worked for so long in such a dangerous environment without being harmed or having to radically alter his life. Yes, the opening scene informs us that he and his family will wind up as refugees, but that isn’t until late 2014. To have survived the U.S. occupation and the first years of Iraqi self-rule with the family unit intact seems like a blessing. That good fortune won’t last, of course—as the film moves forward in time, a palpable sense of dread comes to shape everything we see. It’s as though Ahmed wants us to ask, How long before Sharif and his family will be displaced?
The tragedy occurs about an hour into the film. Members of the Islamic State conquer Jalawla, and Sharif determines that he’s no longer safe there. He takes his family to live in an abandoned schoolhouse outside the city, then (after ISIS encroaches on the area around the school) to a refugee camp a few hours away. The final scenes of Nowhere to Hide reestablish the theme of perseverance, as Sharif, his wife, and children try to carry over aspects of their old lives in the refugee camp. The children go to school, and Sharif begins working at a health clinic on the camp grounds. Yet they cannot forget that their lives have been changed for the worse. The family has to live in a 30-foot-long cabin with 14 other people, and provisions are scarce. At least they have each other.
Before the film ends, Sharif goes back to Jalawla to check on the hospital where he used to work. The building, like most in the area, has been devastated by warfare—equipment lies in ruins, walls have blown apart, and debris is everywhere. Of all the painful imagery Nowhere to Hide has presented, this is some of the most agonizing. The hospital was not only a place where people could come to be treated, it was a symbol of neutrality and life in a culture of violence and death. Now even this has been destroyed by sectarian fighting. Ahmed tries to end Nowhere to Hide on a positive note, with a title card informing us that Sharif and his family (as of mid-2016) are still safe in the refugee camp, yet the fate of Jalawla hangs over this news. You might think of the many others who didn’t have Sharif’s good fortune—people who were just like him or just like you.