MOSUL, A FEATURE DOCUMENTARY
by Daniel Gabriel
For the nation to endure, a city must die.
MOSUL is a character-driven, feature-length documentary (1 hr 24 min). It is built around several characters from contrasting backgrounds and ideologies who we come to know over a period of time (Oct 2016-July 2017), as they play their respective roles in the battle to reclaim the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS). The story is told as a journey into the heart of darkness, through the eyes of a small band of Iraqi filmmakers who navigate up the Tigris River, from Baghdad to Mosul, and ultimately come face to face with evil itself.
In the fall of 2016, an army of over 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and militia men mobilize to liberate Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, from the clutches of ISIS. Among them is embedded Iraqi journalist Ali Maula, who witnesses the temporary alliance between Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Kurds — all of whom have differing motivations in the region - but are motivated by the unified goal of freeing their country from the scourge of ISIS. The road to Mosul is no easy path, and it provides a snapshot of the controversial and larger than life characters who are impacting a political climate that has reached its boiling point: a Sunni tribal leader called "The Crocodile"; a lawyer-turned-warrior; a Iranian-backed female militia leader avenging the death of her husband; and, the refugees who inhabit sprawling relief camps that are the scars of ISIS occupation. As we near the end of Ali’s journey, we encounter a jailed ISIS prisoner who reveals the haunting truth behind his organization. In the aftermath of the largest siege since Stalingrad, sectarian conflict begins to re-emerge - and the tactical victory is met by a stark realization: that the war against ISIS may be over, but the seeds of another conflict have already been sown.
Filmed on location: Mosul, iraq, october 2016 - july 2017
Our field production crew, led by Iraqi journalist Ali Mula, was first embedded with Iraqi forces in the fall of 2016 during operations in Nineveh province and east Mosul. Later, the crew crossed the Tigris River into west Mosul, where die-hard ISIS fighters were holed up in homes, hospitals, schools and mosques, using civilians as human shields as they made their last stand. Under fire, and on constant lookout for ISIS suicide car bombers, our crew filmed hundreds of hours of combat photography, and dozens of interviews with Iraqi soldiers, Mosul residents, and refugees fleeing from the devastation. Ali and his crew focus on how the Iraqi Army, Sunni tribesmen, Shiite militias, Kurdish peshmerga and others are putting aside sectarian differences and uniting against the Islamic State.
Despite declarations of victory over ISIS by the Iraqi and US governments, MOSUL is a timely reminder that even though their dreams of a Caliphate lie in tatters, ISIS’ destructive ideology and brutal campaign of murder still poses an existential threat to Iraq and the region. In recent months, a growing number of reports are detailing the re-emergence of ISIS, fueling fears that a new wave of insurgency has begun. ISIS is actively attempting to regain territory and power by embarking on a campaign of kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings targeting civilians, government officials, and members of the Iraqi security forces. As Mosul rebuilds from the massive destruction wreaked by ISIS fighters and the liberating forces, Iraqi security personnel have detained scores of ISIS insurgents who have re-infiltrated into the eastern part of the city and surrounding neighborhoods. Many of the characters featured in MOSUL remain very much in the fight against ISIS, as the struggle to defend their homes and families remains as important now as it was during the city’s liberation.
Ali Maula – Iraqi Journalist
Ali Douda – Sunni Tribal Leader
Sheikh Saleh – Tribal Mobilization Leader
Um Hanadi – Popular Mobilization Forces Commander
Ahmad Asadi – Popular Mobilization Leader and Member of Iraqi Parliament
Captain Alaa Atah – Officer, Iraqi Emergency Response
Brigade Khadoury – Sniper, Iraqi Army
Arif Tayfur – Commander, Kurdish Peshmerga
Captain Bhoutros – Officer, Nineveh Plains Protection Unit
Colonel Nedhal – Officer, Salahuddin Regiment, Iraqi Army
Nasser Issa – ISIS Recruiter and Prisoner of the Iraqi Police
Is the defeat of ISIS the end of this conflict? Why was sectarianism a principal theme of the film?
In July 2017, the Iraqi government declared the liberation of Mosul and the military defeat of ISIS. But as scene after scene in our film shows, this victory came at an enormous cost, with tens of thousands of military casualties, millions of displaced persons, and billions of dollars’ worth of damage to the physical infrastructure of Mosul and northern Iraq. The only thing worse than winning this battle would have been to lose it. However, the underlying reason for the fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014 was deep sectarian conflict between the majority Shiites - and the minority Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and others. In order to win Mosul back from ISIS, Iraqis followed the old adage—the enemy of my enemy is my friend. After being routed from Mosul in 2014, the Iraqi army realized it had to cooperate with the Shiite militias if it was going to have any chance of retaking the city. Over and over again, we heard the mantras that “sectarianism is dead”, and “we are all Iraqis now”. But with the long memories of Mosul, sectarian rivalry and mistrust lie just under the surface. The Iraqi people wonder who will rebuild Mosul, what will happen to the displaced families, and how the victors will settle scores with the large numbers of ISIS sympathizers that remain in the region. They also worry about how sectarian differences in Iraq are being 4 exploited by neighbors like Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others for their own geopolitical purposes.
How do you construct a narrative from the chaos of combat?
The best way to tell the story of men in combat is to get as close to the combat as possible. When our crew spent a day in the Old City of Mosul with a unit of the Golden Division—Iraq’s elite counterterrorism force—they were right in the middle of the action. They moved house-to-house with the Iraqi operators as they blasted ISIS targets with point-blank machine gun fire. They were there when the operators burst into the hiding places of terrified civilians and did their best to calm them down. And they were there when an Iraqi soldier was mortally wounded, and the fire was too intense for medical evacuation. It all depends on the bravery and skill of our cameramen and sound technicians, and our Mosul crews were the best.
What were the biggest challenges behind the making of MOSUL?
The biggest challenge was filming house-to-house combat operations between Iraqi forces and die-hard ISIS fighters. Our crews were on the front lines and had to dodge ISIS snipers and suicide bombers while getting the amazing shots we have in the film. We are grateful that no crew members were injured during field production, and we have the utmost respect for the courageous cameramen and sound technicians that followed the action - step for step - with Iraqi soldiers. The next challenge was screening, indexing, logging and translating hundreds of hours of interviews, combat scenes, location shots and other footage. We were fortunate to have an expert team of Iraqis and Arabic speakers who organized this content in such a way for our creative team to select the best subjects and shots, and weave complicated material into a coherent narrative.
Where did the idea for “Mosul” come from?
In 2016, while shooting a TV series in Iraq about ISIS defectors, I learned from sources about an imminent big push of Iraqi forces to liberate the city of Mosul, from ISIS. Through our connections in the Iraqi government, we were able to embed our journalist Ali Maula and several crews of combat cameramen with the Iraqi armed forces and militias. Our crews had unprecedented access to the campaign, as Iraqi forces liberated their country and eliminated ISIS from the “Old City” of Mosul. After shooting hundreds of hours of raw footage and interviews, it was apparent that we had stories, characters, and location scenes that nobody else had. This was an opportunity to make a definitive film that captured the intensity, scope, heroism and heartbreak of the biggest military operation in the Middle East since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. And we took it.
Who are your favorite characters?
Um Hanadi, a female commander in charge of an all-male militia unit, stands out. After losing two husbands and many of her male relatives in combat against ISIS, she is a determined avenger. But she demonstrates that she can put aside her warrior mask, and reveal the personal price she has paid as a wife, mother and grandmother. Another character forged in the battle of Mosul is Captain Alaa Atah. Off duty, he is a thoughtful, soft-spoken lawyer and family man, but when he straps on his combat gear and starts giving orders, he is the consummate professional warrior. We were struck by Captain Alaa’s commitment to protect his men in combat, and spare civilians caught in the crossfire. The most chilling character is Nasser Issa, a prominent ISIS recruiter who was a High Value Detainee when our reporter pulled strings to obtain his prison interview. Although shackled to a bench with execution looming, Nasser still defends the precepts of the Islamic State. He defiantly predicted that his hateful ideology would outlive him. As ISIS 2.0 rises from the ashes of Mosul, he might be right.
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When and where can we view the film?
The world premiere for MOSUL will be at the Cleveland International Film Festival. Screenings are scheduled on Friday, April 05, 2019 at 6:40 PM; and Saturday, April 06, 2019 at 2:15 PM. The film will be officially released on 14 May 2019, and available for digital download on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon, as well as cable and internet Video on Demand (VOD). It will be made available to subscription video on demand (e.g. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon) beginning in Fall 2019.
How can I pre-order the film?
Other Places to Find Mosul
Academy of United States Veterans