Some great documentaries cut through the inessentials and help you make sense of an apparently senseless world. Others have the opposite effect: They shock you into an even greater confoundment, demonstrating, moment by moment, how irrational the world really is. Nowhere to Hide is in the latter camp. It’s an “experiential” doc, a first-person view of the disintegration of Iraq as it happens. The cameraperson is a medic and father named Nori Sharif who lives in the central Iraq town of Jalawla. When Americans troops withdraw from Iraq in 2011, a departing documentary crew gives Nori a small camera and tells him to shoot whatever he wants. The presumption is that after eight bloody years of occupation, the country will begin to stabilize and to heal. “I am very happy,” says Nori, “to see the country free.”
The grueling 80-plus minutes that follow take you from 2011 to 2015. The first part of the film — what Nori plainly thought would be its lowest point — focuses on the occupation’s immediate aftermath: the widows and orphans, the men who’ve been paralyzed by bullets and bombs, the father who’d been kidnapped twice by al Qaeda after being sold out by a supposed “friend.” One year later, civil war has arrived. Nori trudges into buildings that have been shelled by the regime. A boy wails in agony over the body of his father. Iraqi regime troops open fire on peaceful Sunni protests. Central Iraq falls to ISIS. Burning military bases belch up black smoke in the distance. Most of the staff of the Jalawla hospital flees, the lone doctor among them. Nori must be the doctor now. He photographs a mother in shock, staring at God knows what, and a little girl covered in blood. Nori and his family finally flee as ISIS arrives on the outskirts of Jalawla, headed anywhere and nowhere.
Directed by Zaradasht Ahmed, Nowhere to Hide unfolds in a political vacuum, insofar as the focus is on suffering civilians. No one assigns blame for what is happening. Toward the end of the film, when Nori returns to Jalawla, after ISIS has been driven out, to inspect the rubbled hospital (he holds up a defibrillator that ISIS soldiers have deliberately smashed and shakes his head), he muses on the chaos. It was thought, he says, that “a war is planned by the elite, the dumb die in it, and opportunists benefit — but this is none of the above.”
He’s only partially right. The war was planned by Paul Wolfowitz and some of the most profoundly stupid and callous men ever to hold office in this country. They ousted Saddam but had no clue how to manage the country, shrugging off what Colin Powell among others called the Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you buy it.” They broke it and let it further disintegrate while the dumb — i.e., the voiceless — died, Americans and, in vast numbers, Iraqi civilians. The opportunists with ties to the Bush administration benefited to the tune of billions. The horror that followed the American withdrawal was not perpetrated by these men, but they opened the floodgates.
Anyway, that’s what I was thinking as I watched Nori and his family move around the country, at one point living in a school with 20 other families, often just one step ahead of ISIS. They are now in the Sa’ad refugee camp, their town that once held several hundred thousand effectively destroyed, their present marked by dread, their future unknown.
Among the movie’s meta-moments is a scene in which a child asks to hold the camera and Nori says to make sure to hold each shot for at least ten seconds. Probably that’s the most hopeful thing in the film — that and the spare and very beautiful guitar soundtrack by Gaute Barlindhaug and Ciwan Haco. No one can make sense of what is happening to this and other families. But they must film it.