Nowhere to hide

Nowhere to Hide

When Nori Sharif is given a video camera by director Zaradasht Ahmed to record life in a small Iraqi town following the American withdrawal at the end of 2011, he decides to film people that “nobody knows about.” One of them is a truck driver who lost both legs in a car bombing yet who feels that things could have been a lot worse. “I could have run someone over with my truck  or been in jail, but I still have my kids,” he says, as one of his daughters helps him into a wheelchair.

The truck driver’s surprising expression of gratitude is just one startling and moving moment in Nowhere to Hide, a documentary that describes the last 4 years  in Iraq through the eyes of Sharif, a hospital nurse in his late thirties and a father of four children. Sharif’s compassionate and poetic documentation, told with unflinching honesty, presents a humanistic portrait of a troubled people that is very different than the news broadcast images that have been shown around the world during the last few decades.

Sharif’s narrative is remarkable in many respects: he provides an eye-witness account of the deteriorating political situation; his unobtrusive presence gives us access to the daily lives  of  ordinary people caught up in the ever-changing conflict;  and because Sharif’s own life is so dramatically transformed during this period — as he himself becomes a refugee — his personal story takes on the dimensions of a Tolstoyesque novel, in which we profoundly sense and feel the events of war through the tragic details of a single life.

The film begins with Sharif describing his life “as good…my house with my beautiful  wife and four an oasis.”  He presumably thinks that the film project will merely consist of  presenting the untold stories of people around him.  Indeed if Sharif was only  to offer us a picture of his fellow townspeople we would still come away from the film a lot wiser. Sharif introduces us to a shepherd boy with whom he has fun teaching a traditional dance; he sensitively describes a crippled woman whose “bed has become her only friend”, and he reflects on the condition of his neighbors for whom the war continues “to go on inside.”

But by  2013 Sharif’s focus changes.  The newly formed independent Iraqi government has become corrupt and dysfunctional. Waves of  terrorism,   including those generated by Al-Qaeda, ISIS as well as local tribal rivalries soon bring a path of destruction. The hospital where Sharif works in his hometown of Jalawla is destroyed and by 2015 his own home is destroyed.  Sharif notes that he is no longer just “documenting other victims of war, but now I am documenting myself.”

Yet Sharif remains deeply involved with the people around him. He does the work normally done by  the doctors that have fled and shares in the agonies of his friends, such as when a neighbor confides in  him that he is unable to send his young son to elementary school because  the child needs to collect and sell plastic bottles so that  the family can survive.

Throughout all this, Sharif admits to being baffled by the constantly-shifting religious and ethnic rivalries.  “I don’t understand this war, it’s an undiagnosed war…you only see the symptoms,” he reflects. “But you don’t understand the disease, it is hidden in the body.” He frankly concedes in a meeting with foreign doctors that he has no way of knowing if even his own neighbors will turn against him.

Yet life goes on. There are weddings and children laughing as they watch airplanes in the sky. Sharif doesn’t overlook  this side of daily life, yet  is continually drawn to the shadows of the war: his camera ruminates over an empty  bullet-riddled car where a young child was killed; he quietly visits the home of a family where two children were kidnapped and beheaded without anyone knowing by who or why.

When asked why he is filming all this, he simply replies “because  I need to.” Like many  people who have had their lives upended by war – and I have seen this among the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust as well as of the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur —  the need to let the world know what has happened to them becomes a kind of instinctual drive, well beyond any attempt to gain sympathy or reparations.

It is also instructive that Sharif’s sense of urgency to convey what has happened is combined with a measure of optimism and hope. Even as he and his family end up in a makeshift refugee camp in the Iraqi desert with an insufficient supply of water — twenty people squeezed into two small rooms — he remains steadfast in his belief that “in the end the will to build will win over the forces of destruction.” His life-affirming comment brings to mind the famous words written by Anne Frank in her iconic Holocaust diary: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Just as the story of a single girl, hiding in an Amsterdam attic,  helped open up the eyes of people around the world  to the ordeal experienced by an entire people, it is to be hoped that this account of a hospital nurse and his family  will provide a wide audience with a better understanding of who the people described in the news  as “Middle East refugees” really are.

Although the film does not mention whether Sharif wishes to remain in Iraq or seek a new life in Europe or elsewhere, it’s hard to think of someone who could be a better citizen in any country. Hard-working, skilled and highly- motivated, Sharif, like many of his fellow refugees, shouldn’t have nowhere to hide; rather, he really should have many places to go.

Bernard Dichek