"Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)"

“Who plunged this place of light into darkness?” An essential documentary on living in Iraq.
Celluloid Liberation Front

“Our point of view follows a trajectory to become the vanishing point of our own failure.” —Jacques Lacan

“Who plunged this place of light into darkness?” asks with a heavy heart an Iraqi actor sifting through the bombed ruins of what had once been Iraq's film office and archives. Though rhetorical and sappy it may sound, the question epitomizes the visual dilemma Abbas Fahdel's documentary expands on. At the very centre of Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) are in fact questions of representation, of cultural perspective and omission of the visible. The film, divided into two parts, follows the director's extended family and friends in the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq (“Before the Fall”) and in its fatal aftermath (“After to the Battle”). Presumably due to the family's temporary move to a countryside house during the bombing of Baghdad, the war itself—that is, the military invasion of of a sovereign nation—is not featured in the documentary. This absence becomes more and more telling as the film progresses and we realise that the armed aggression of Iraq was but the prelude to a nightmare of unspeakable proportions. Fahdel's film is disarmingly simple yet unprecedented in that it shows the daily reality of those on the receiving end of our humanitarian wars. Despite the overwhelming proliferation of images, “Homeland” has the same impact of footage from a newly discovered planet, something we literally have never seen before. Even the most courageous and truthful attempts to describe the Iraq war (Laura Poitras' My Country, My Country or Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah, for instance) are irremediably removed from the epic naturalism that unfolds from every frame of this film. The most distressing aspect of the war that the film captures is not the actual invasion but its consequences: the descent of Iraqi society into utter and violent chaos. Far from being a collateral damage of sort, the disintegration of Iraqi society is a strategic ploy (as old as colonialism itself) that the American administration carried out by any means necessary. For the citizens of Iraq this meant a forced cohabitation between the bearable lightness of everyday life and the dim indeterminacy of incessant, deadly danger.

The first part of the documentary serves as a humbling counterpoint to the clobbering propaganda that justified in the name of democracy the annihilation of a country, its people and society for decades to come. To the pathetic and fateful image of Colin Powell waving to the world a sample of faecal matter claiming it to be a weapon of mass destruction, Abbas Fahdel opposes the everyday gestures of a middle class family in Baghdad: their fears, doomed hopes and ordinary preoccupations. Instead of the featureless, conniving savages that populates Hollywood depictions of the Iraq war, we get to know the members of a society still founded, however imperfectly, on communal models of reciprocity. “Homeland” feels almost specular to Frederick Wiseman's In Jackson Heights, both of them dealing with the obliteration of community and the supremacist assumption inherent to the exceptional nature of the American way of life. Very much like Wiseman though, Fahdel is not interested in passing judgements or proving a point: he limits himself to the composition a choral mosaic of voices, fragments of life and emphatic vignettes. Though the disaster of war is ubiquitous throughout the second part, the film avoids drawing any conclusion, political or otherwise. Even hatred and rage, not only understandable but also historically justified, find hardly any room in the film. The moral and figurative perspective of western representation, with its unequivocal civilization of correct images, is challenged by a refusal to convey a single point of view. This aesthetic divergence has characterised the visual history of Christianity and Islam since the invention of perspective which put the Western point of view at the very centre of representation. By rejecting the portrayal of human figures and of the perspective of Renaissance art in particular, Islamic art denied the omniscience of Western depictions and the centrality of the spectator who, looking through the vanishing point, saw his vision of the world faithfully mirrored on canvas (for an in-depth and comparative study of Western and Islamic visual traditions see Hans Belting's “Florenz und Bagdad: Eine westöstliche Geschichte des Blicks”).

Left: Colin Powell. Right: Alhazan as portrayed on an Iraqi banknote.

While Western perspective has long been the global mode of visual representation through the proliferation of mass-media, the cultural presumption that comes with the depiction of “the other” is our very own identification mark. The virulent orientalism of films like American Sniper or Zero Dark Thirty belongs to a wider visual narrative—their racism does not originate from any personal prejudice, it's part and parcel of the only ethic and aesthetic palette the directors can draw from. It is precisely in this respect that “Homeland” represents a window into a world we would never be able to see through our own lenses. The film capsizes our preconceptions, both benevolent and prejudiced, to illustrate first and foremost that the daily reality of war is something that media, regardless of their political orientation, hardly touch upon. While journalism manipulates facts in its professional duty to craft a version of reality and toe an editorial line, Fahdel's film immerses the spectator into the flux of everyday uncertainty. If stereotypes deny subtleties in order to corroborate fears, Homeland attempts to mirror the complexity of Iraqi society by capturing its nuances, be they political, cultural or religious. All this without ever mentioning the figures of what clearly amounts to the worst crime against humanity of the 21st century, or, as Obama calls it: a “strategic stumble.”

It would be misdealing though to label Homeland as a film on the Iraq war. The war in effect is never framed for the very simple fact that its contours are fluid, its implications all-pervading and its circumscription impossible, both visually and militarily. Faced with the calamitous immanence of modern warfare, the director can only observe its multiple manifestations or resignedly follow the disorder it unleashes. Only death, which enters the film first as announcement then as diegetic presence, can determine the final shape of a documentary that could have otherwise survived its end. What's left after the film finishes is a cone of light that has, if only for a mere five hours and a half, illuminated the dark corners of our blinding preconceptions. This inversion of perspective finds in the city of Baghdad a symbolic site of historical significance – there in fact were laid the optical foundations on which the medium we call cinema rests. The Iraqi scholar Abu 'Ali al-Hasan Ibn al-Haitham (965-1040), known in the west as Alhazan, studied in Baghdad and wrote the seven-volume treatise “Kitāb al-Manāẓir (Book of Optics) formulating the now accepted model wherefore vision takes place by light entering the eye. In his studies Alhazan was the first one to use the concept of camera obscura (“al-bait al-muzlim”) which he utilized to test his theories on the perception and movement of light without which the mathematical structures of Creation could not be seen. More than gravity it was light for Alhazan the pillar around which human life orbited and was shaped. The very same light that went out over the city that so presciently had understood its importance.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Abbas Fahdel
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.