'Isis, Tomorrow. The Lost Souls of Mosul': Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
A chilling prediction of future disaster.

Italian journalist Francesca Mannocchi and photographer Alessio Romenzi plunge into the post-war Iraqi tragedy of children educated to violence and martyrdom.

A woman speaks up after the liberation of Mosul from militants belonging to the Islamic State: “A weight has been lifted from our hearts!” Isis, Tomorrow. The Lost Souls of Mosul offers good reasons for the weight to return. This powerful documentary reveals the weapons that the losing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has left behind to avenge its defeat: thousands of ticking time bombs in the form of children who have been indoctrinated into the ideology of the great universal Caliphate. Widely admired in its out of competition screening in Venice, this unsettling English-language film looks poised for awards.

Through powerful images and interviews with children on both sides of the ideological fence, it documents the thesis that the outcast sons of jihadists, branded as pariahs today for their family’s affiliation with ISIS, are a sleeping army of future terrorists and suicide bombers who will keep the ideology alive for a long time to come.

Co-directors Francesca Mannocchi (winner of the Italian journalism prize Premiolino 2016) and photographer Alessio Romenzi (World Press Photo Award, Picture of the Year) combine their insiders’ knowledge of the Mideast and journalistic skills in a stunningly effective filmmaking debut, shot during 10 trips to Mosul between 2016 and early 2018. It takes the viewer deep into the heart of post-war Iraq and describes, through heart-stopping images of the ruined city and in the words of the survivors, the harrowing aftermath of victory by government forces.

The directors present both the families of ISIS militants and their victims. One boy was an eyewitness to his father's death at the hands of the militia, another to his mother’s public whipping for not being dressed to the jihadists’ standards. They have lost all childish innocence and their attitude is an eye-for-an-eye: “May God do the same to them as they did to us.” What outrages them most is seeing the children of ISIS combatants on the street.

Shot in silhouette with his features darkened, a boy from a militant family says, “It was better if we had died.” He was indoctrinated by his father into jihadist ideology and the belief that everyone who wasn’t with them was an infidel to be killed. Now his father is dead and he refuses to leave his house for fear of being recognized and humiliated on the street.

Though fascinating throughout, the doc sometimes strays from its main subject, adding in background material on the city and its people. A woman whose family has been decimated by ISIS weeps piteously with her aged mother and her small kids. On the other side, the young childless widow of an ISIS fighter living in an empty house mourns her family, who are all dead. She ominously believes that after some time the situation will turn in their favor.  

After Mosul was liberated in July 2017, three years after ISIS took control of the city, most of the women and children from ISIS families were moved to an immense, fenced-in tent city, a sort of open-air prison where they are derided and sometimes threatened by their angry former neighbors. One feels for them as they struggle to feed and get medical treatment for their children, some of whom have been mutilated and blinded by bombs. But it’s clear they are also fueling their kids’ hatred of “them,” their infidel neighbors, and they play a major role in perpetuating an endless conflict.

“How many souls have been lost because of ISIS?” asks a boy around 12, old before his time. Among these lost souls must be counted the thousands of minors who were jailed alongside surviving combatants. Called “the cubs of the Caliphate,” they were often recruited by their own fathers or, if they found their own way to ISIS against their family’s wishes, the family would simply be exterminated. In harsh training camps, small boys studied Sharia law and learned to take beatings without flinching. And they were indoctrinated in dreams of martyrdom and cutting the throats of American journalists.

One tough member of the Iraqi Secret Services makes no bones about the impossibility of reforming these kids and he justifies arresting and killing them. But another soldier with more heart cries as he describes the terrible choice he was confronted with when he came face to face with a child suicide bomber who refused to listen to reason. "His brain was turned off," says the soldier, who watched helplessly as the boy blew himself up.

Production companies: FremantleMedia Italia, Wildside, RAI Cinema, CALA Filmproduktion
Directors-screenwriters-cinematographers: Francesca Mannocchi, Alessio Romenzi
Producers: Gabriele Immirzi, Lorenzo Gangarossa, Martina Haubrich
Editors: Emanuele Svezia, Sara Zavarise
Music: Andrea Ciccarelli
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of competition non-fiction)
World sales: Cinephil

80 minutes