'Nowhere to Hide': Film Review | IDFA 2016

An immersive evocation of day-to-day realities in Iraq.

Zaradasht Ahmed's Norwegian-Swedish documentary won top honors at the giant Dutch festival.

Shattered bodies prove easier to fix than broken countries in Zaradasht Ahmed's Nowhere to Hide, a first-person immersion in four turbulent years in the life of an Iraqi medic. A behind-the-headlines story of human resilience in the face of daily-worsening circumstances, this Norway-Sweden co-production by Kurdish-born, Oslo-based Ahmed landed the top prize in IDFA's keenly contested Feature-Length Competition and looks set for a busy festival career in the months ahead.

Niche theatrical distribution also is potentially in the cards, while small-screen options reportedly include the 86-minute version premiered in Amsterdam and a 60-minute TV edit. Prospects of exposure on all platforms and outlets are boosted by the fact that developments in this particularly febrile corner of the world look sure to feature prominently in global news media for the foreseeable future.

A brief prologue provides a striking introduction to main protagonist — and chief cameraman — Nori Sharif, who emerges from the Diyala Desert in a manner reminiscent of his namesake Omar's iconic entrance in Lawrence of Arabia. The sweat-soaked, desperate Sharif we see here in 2014 is a stark contrast to the composed, cheerful chap then shown in December 2011 as American troops hand over control of Iraq to its people amid much singing and dancing in the streets.

At this point Sharif is working at the Jalawla Emergency Hospital, a hundred miles northwest of Baghdad, not so far from the Iranian border. "My life is good," he beams, surveying his "beautiful wife" and four young children in their comfortable residence. They are, of course, the lucky ones — in this part of Iraq, known as the "triangle of death," thousands were injured in the "tornado of war" as Saddam Hussein was forced from power, resulting in "an army of orphans." But as the months pass and Iraq steadily slides into fresh ethnic strife and resurgent bloody chaos, Sharif finds himself helplessly engulfed in the violent tides of history.

Recording his daily life with a small videocamera, with occasional interpolations from Ahmed's more professional equipment, the genial, relentlessly curious Sharif proves an excellent guide as the security situation spirals from instability into nightmare and the so-called Islamic State (aka ISIS or Daesh) advances inexorably advances towards Jalawla.

Sharif's profession gives him close-up access to injured, desperate people of all kinds —  often shown in graphic close-up here — and informs his vocabulary as he seeks to make sense of it all. It is, he says, "an undiagnosed war: you only see the symptoms, you don't understand the disease." Fleeing his home just before the hour mark, Sharif and his family become nomadic refugees in their own country, shuttling between 13 different locations before finding safe haven in a camp for displaced persons amid thousands in a similar horrendous plight. 

Editor Eva Hillstrom pieces together what was presumably a mass of video-diary reportage into a coherent, brisk whole. Director Ahmed — previously responsible for autobiographical 2013 documentary Fata Morgana — wisely keeps Sharif front-and-center as much as possible, his travails receiving occasional strings-dominated embellishment from composer Gaute Berlindhaug and Kurdish singer Ciwan Haco.

Their contributions heighten the sense of atmosphere and poignancy, though sometimes cross the line into superfluous underlinings of emotional situations which speak all too eloquently for themselves. Sharif's story and personality hold the attention regardless of such lily-gilding — as Tom Clancy has a character remark about Jack Ryan, he is by any measure "a good man in a storm," unblinking eyewitness to an epoch lethally brimming with clear and present dangers.

Venue: IDFA, Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Production companies: Ten Thousand Images, Pasaremos, Mantaray Film

Director-screenwriter: Zaradasht Ahmed
Producer: Mette Cheng Munte-Kaas
Co-producers: Hans Husum, Stina Gardell
Cinematographers: Zaradasht Ahmed, Nori Sharif
Editor: Eva Hillstrom
Composer: Gaute Berlindhaug
Sales: East Village Entertainment, New York (diana@eastvillageentertainment.com)

In Arabic

Not rated, 86 minutes