Everything happened very quickly: where Kawa is, two “Islamic State” snipers shot at random people who were fleeing. Both are now dead, the young anti-IS fighter (Adam Bessa) and his team stormed the roof of the ruins. Kawa lights a cigarette, it comes from the packet of one of the dead enemies, and looks down at the street. The corpses are still lying there, and a mother keeps shaking her dead child there, as if it were perhaps just sleeping. A soft toy lies in the dust next to it.
Then follows in Matthew Michael Carnahan’s “Mosul” a scene that is seldom seen in war films: the mother looks up and returns Kawa’s gaze; she straightens up and stares at him. It’s right where the shots came from. Does she see him as a protector and savior? Or does she think he shot her child and now has the audacity to watch her mourn while smoking? Or does she just see him as one of the men who are waging endless war here in this long-destroyed city, for whatever or against, who bring nothing but suffering and now have their son on their conscience? One does not know. But this question alone, which Carnahan allows himself in this calm, disturbing moment, shows that “Mosul” does something different than most war films.
The film is set in spring 2017, in the last weeks of the major offensive by the Kurdish and Iraqi armed forces, with which the fighters of the “Islamic State” (IS), called here by the Arabic abbreviation “Daesh”, from their former stronghold of Mosul in northern Iraq should be evicted. The last supporters of IS have holed up in the medina, the old town, there is a bitter house-to-house fight raging in an apocalyptic landscape of war ruins, everything filmed with razor-sharp contrasts. Actually, with pictures like this one has long been conditioned to look at American soldiers. But they are completely missing in this film. Somehow they still help in the background, but actually they are already a distant memory.
Arabic is spoken throughout – streaming has completed the globalization of storytelling
Because “Mosul” has different actors, Iraqis and Kurds, that is what makes this film special: Matthew Michael Carnahan, the author and director (“Deepwater Horizon”, “World War Z”) is American, just like its producers, the Russo brothers, known for their Marvel blockbusters, and the cameraman Mauro Fiore, for example, comes from Italy. This western team, however, deliberately opened up an unfamiliar narrative space: Without white companions and main characters, without the western view, to which everything first has to be explained with great effort. There is no longer a single white face in front of the camera; Arabic is spoken throughout. That would never have happened before streaming broke Hollywood thinking and completed the globalization of storytelling. Like so many films in lockdown times, “Mosul” is a Netflix premiere.
Although clearly trained in action cinema, the way the camera follows the characters through the dusty streets and ruined houses sometimes has something almost documentary or journalistic about it. This is also due to the material on which the film is based: it appeared in the magazine in 2017 The New Yorker an article about a special unit from Mosul whose members had all lost a loved one to IS or were wounded in fighting against it.
The so-called “Niniveh SWAT Team” had a reputation for extreme lethality. The members of this unit were the only fighters whom IS did not offer to join in the event of capture, but instead executed them immediately. From the photos accompanying the article, the reader is staring at deeply determined men whose eyes seem to say that now is really enough. As threatening as ISIS may be, it has awakened something in these men that is almost more frightening. Especially the petrified face of the leader of the troop in the film, Jasem (played by the Iraqi Suhail Dabbach), comes close to these images and suggests that there is no calm behind the hard facade.
The battle scenes in “Mosul” are staged like a hectic American military film, in Humvee jeeps with a skull logo the team rushes through the ruined city, fights and takes no prisoners. Enemies that fall into their hands alive are executed immediately – Kawa, who was previously a simple police officer and is recruited after his uncle’s death, is initially shocked. But then it’s all the more surprising how much time the film takes to get closer to the men of this troupe – when they unpack their water pipes, watch Kuwaiti soaps or pray calmly, even when the rest of the team is yelling at each other with bright red heads about the further procedure .
Men like Kawa and Jasem are usually nameless and faceless in the cinema, in the best case cannon fodder next to heroic GIs or the enemies of the Americans because they are Arabs. Without any Americans, however, a greater variety immediately comes into view. Carnahan knows that there are decisive differences between different ethnic and religious groups, but he stages it casually. Dead fathers, sons and brothers are evoked in small gestures, such as Jasem’s delusional obsession, and now their companions in arms have taken their place. Women are rarely talked about unless they appear in a soap. But often what nobody wants to talk about is what it’s actually about.
Military stereotypes are also deconstructed: Nothing is heroic here, people die very quickly and very unspectacularly in combat. One wrong step, one careless movement can cross the trajectory of a ball or set off a booby trap. Even so, the film often undermines the expected narrative patterns: Just because someone was previously characterized as likeable and cool does not protect them from a sudden bitter end.
“Mosul” is an uncomfortable film that demands a lot from the viewer and demands a great deal of attention if he wants to fully penetrate what is shown. Contrary to what its sometimes hectic and spectacular production suggests, it is not an intrusive film. What it is actually about takes place quietly and in the smallest of details that reveal a clever and human eye. In this way, Carnahan manages, almost as if by the way, a small honor of the American action film.
Mosul, USA 2019 – Director and book: Matthew Michael Carnahan. Camera: Mauro Fiore. With: Adam Bessa, Suhail Dabbach, Waleed Elgadi, Hayat Kamille. Image Nation, 101 minutes. On Netflix.