'The Deminer': Film Review | IDFA 2017

The Deminer Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
Safe-hands tribute to a life lived on the edge.

Hogir Hirori and Shinwar Kamal's Sweden-Iraq co-production won second prize at the world's largest documentary festival.

Tension runs high — maybe too high — in Hogir Hirori and Shinwar Kamal's The Deminer, observing an Iraqi IED-defuser who paid the ultimate price for his staggering, devil-may-care bravery. Making copious use of archival footage shot while its subject, army colonel Fakhir Berwari, went about his hazardous business in the mid-2000s, this is in some ways a non-fiction counterpart to Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar winner The Hurt Locker.

But by keeping a fly-on-the-wall low profile that requires eschewing interview possibilities, Hirori and Kamal never get under their taciturn protagonist's skin in the manner of Bigelow's scriptwriter Mark Boal. And while Berwari's self-effacingly heroic motivations are presented at face value — in a project reliant on the cooperation of his grieving family — there's the nagging sense of potentially more intriguing and problematic stories lying left unprobed.

Angry frictions between Kurds and non-Kurds (especially representatives of the Iraq army) in Kurdish-controlled areas, for example, remain fuzzily explained. Some may also question the way the two directors spin out the queasy sense of suspense which hovers somewhat sickeningly over the second half, as we await this gruffly likeable fellow's horribly inevitable demise.

The slickly assembled Sweden-Iraq co-production has nevertheless been one of the leading audience favorites at this year's IDFA in Amsterdam, and also took the silver-medal Special Jury Prize from the competition jury — portending a busy festival career ahead, plus subsequent small-screen bookings.

It will thus follow in the footsteps of last year's big IDFA winner Nowhere to Hide, Zaradasht Ahmed's Sweden-Norway co-production effort about an Iraqi medic coping with the chaos engulfing his country after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. But while there is no shortage of harrowing documentary work currently flowing from Mideast trouble spots, it now takes something special to stand out from the pack. The Deminer falls short: The film is solid, topical, dutiful, but always content to retread well-trodden turf. It presents what has sadly become very familiar content — immersing the viewer in the nightmarish rubble of destroyed settlements — in professional but thoroughly standard-issue style.

Berwari's adult son Abdulla, who stumbled across the video cache ("It's like an action movie, but it's for real") some time after his dad's 2014 demise, narrates a compendium of episodes taken from Berwari's two separate demining careers. This "40- to 50-hour" trove from 2003-2008 has been edited into manageable form by co-director Horiri, Kurdish-born but a resident in Sweden since the early 1990s and responsible for last year's autobiographical, ISIS-themed The Girl Who Saved My Life.

First we see excerpts from the cache shot following the second Gulf War, when Berwari — always to some degree concerned with the maintenance of his swaggeringly confident, inspiringly valiant public image — usually seems to have had an amateur cameraman in tow. Then, via more professional-looking and higher-definition images shot by co-director Kamal, we follow him as he resumes his activities, still using rudimentary tools, in the present decade. Emerging from injury-occasioned retirement, he joins forces with the Kurdish "Peshmerga" militia after ISIS (aka "Daesh") makes its dramatic, deadly sweep across much of northern Iraq.

There are four big on-camera explosions of increasing seriousness: the three in the 2000s section culminate in the graphic loss of Berwari's leg via an encounter with a suicide bomber. Keeningly mournful strings are deployed to underline the melancholic mood, plus sad, tinkling piano in the wake of particularly grim or tragic developments. As is usually the case with this particular subgenre, the material presented is easily strong enough to do without hackneyed embellishments — but fashions in documentary, especially when it comes to projects assembled with an eye on TV exposure, are evidently hard to resist.

Production company: Lolav Media
Directors: Hogir Hirori, Shinwar Kamal
Screenwriter-editor: Hogir Hirori
Producers: Hogir Hirori, Antonio Russo Merenda
Cinematographer: Firas Bakrmani, Shinwar Kamal, Erik Vallsten
Composer: Mohammed Zaki
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Sales: Dogwoof, London

In Kurdish and Arabic
83 minutes