By Gianmaria Franchini
Adel applies spray paint onto a concrete street barricade in Baghdad.
In deft strokes, he composes childlike but powerful images of his frustration: skulls, an ominous black bird, a precarious dove. Articulate and wistful, he speaks into a camera. “In the best-case scenario living here, you kind of live like an animal. You just want to survive, that’s all. I don’t want to live this life, but I also don’t want to die. Soâ€¦ it’s really confusing.”
Taking in his new creation from a few paces away, he hurls the cans of spray paint at the barricade in controlled rage and walks away.
That is a brief, if not inadequate, summary of Hometown Baghdad’s 18th episode, “Anger. Pain. Death. Madness.” Adel is one of three young men featured in the web-documentary series, which was spearheaded by New York production company Chat the Planet.
After producing a special for MTV’s “Choose or Lose” campaign that connected students from Kent State and Baghdad University via satellite, Chat the Planet staff became so enamored with their Iraqi crew, who Associate Producer and Internet Media Manager Michael Dibenedetto called “incredibly talented guys,” that they decided to collaborate on a new project.
The result is a collection of dozens of documentary clips viewable on the project’s own website, as well as YouTube.com and Salon.com.
For those viewers who are not fooled by the “reality” television show, which actually has a script, or disheartened by saturation of media coverage on the Iraq War, Hometown Baghdad offers an admirable alternative to the usual depiction of the effects of the war.
The angle is fresh, examining the lives of young Iraqi citizens on video for the first time. The strength of the web series lies in its uncompromised view into the lives of the three Iraqi students.
Outside of a few tasteful editing touches and the inclusion of a subtle rhythmic soundtrack, the production takes a backseat to Adel, Saif, and Ausama as their lives unfold before the camera.
“The [goal] was to tell their stories â€“ that their voices come through, and to give a face to them,” Dibenedetto said.
Their voices definitely do rise above the stark ruins of their ravaged hometown. The war, though certainly devastating, appears in forms of grisly second-hand accounts of violence, footage of massive smoking rubble, or the sound of a distant spray of bullets.
In one episode, we see Adel reclined in his bedroom, listening to what he calls a “symphony of bullets.”
He is visibly tranquil, but one wonders if his smile is meant to be ironic. The addition of soothing violins over footage of dark streets loaded with gunfire is a powerful touch.
Although the danger to the film crew and cast is relevant, not all of the episodes are laden with drama. The episode called “Bubbly Bubbly” is haggard Saif’s light-hearted homage to the hookah.
In “Kiss and Tell,” the soft-spoken Ausama admits he has difficulty in getting a date because of his innate shyness.
The moments of levity endue a certain dignity to the young men as they retain their sense of humor in a bleak environment.
Though Saif, Ausama and Adel each contribute their own charismatic personalities to the project, Adel’s candor is especially disarming.
He has a rooted need to express himself and his world, and it is fascinating to watch him act out self-induced therapy. Besides graffiti, he writes song lyrics and plays the guitar.
“You can join a gang, or you can join a militia, or you can join a band,” he says in “Brains on Campus,” with another ironic smirk. “The important thing is that you do something.”
When asked to elaborate on his creative inspiration, his anger returns. “We write about pain, death, destruction, darkness — you don’t necessarily have to be in Iraq to understand.” And we probably don’t. But listening to him is the closest to Ground Zero most of us are ever going to get.
_All of the episodes can be viewed at www.hometownbaghdad.com._