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Bernard-Henri Lévy Premieres ‘Battle of Mosul’ Documentary in Iraq

In Erbil, Kurdish officials and high-ranking Peshmerga took in BHL’s latest doc about the fight for a city that rages on

Vladislav Davidzon
March 09, 2017
Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
French philosopher, writer, and director Bernard-Henri Levy at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, May 20, 2016. Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
French philosopher, writer, and director Bernard-Henri Levy at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, May 20, 2016. Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Fresh of his American book tour for The Genius of Judaism, Bernard-Henri Lévy’s newly published paean to the creed of his forefathers, the philosopher arrived in Erbil, for the Iraqi premiere of The Battle of Mosul. Amid the highest levels of security, with the Iraqi army making a push to reclaim Mosul, Lévy screened the film for an auditorium full of Kurdish government officials, diplomats and high-ranking Peshmerga. The Kurds with their noble, democratic, egalitarian tolerance, respect for women, mild impious religiosity, and leftish politics offered a perfect fit for Levy’s 19th century romantic nationalism, which the Kurds love.

The Battle of Mosul takes us over the Iraqi side of the border, and spans the fighting that took place between October and January, during which the coalition surrounded the last Islamist stronghold. The documentary is a logical extension of Lévy’s previous film Peshmerga, which focuses on the exploits of the Kurdish militia in taking Syrian territory back from ISIS. Reviewing it during my coverage of the Cannes Film Festival last year I wrote that:

Lévy’s third wartime documentary after Bosnia! and Le Serment de Tobrouk (The Oath of Tobruk) follows the fiercely disciplined Kurdish forces as they wage war to establish their longed-for pan-Kurdish state, which would be carved out of parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. With their female-integrated battalions, historical enmity to the Arabs, and tolerant disdain of religious dogma, the peshmerga have emerged as the West’s most committed proxies in the war against ISIS. The film tracks Lévy and his crew as they travel for six months with the peshmerga north along the territory held by ISIS toward a major battle in the Sinjar mountains.

The two films are complimentary, and should be screened back to back to get a full picture of the conflict. Peshmerga, it should be noted, an excellent and gripping documentary: fast-paced, formally dexterous, harrowing and skeptically probing while also being very humane. The “sequel,” The Battle of Mosul, is even better as a cinematic work and is also much more brutal than its predecessor. In many ways it surpasses Peshmerga in rigorous commitment to uncompromising veracity. The fighting sequences are searing. We watch as young Kurdish soldiers are hit by sniper fire, the bandages over their mortal wounds glisten with blood and brain fluid as their comrades beg them not to close their eyes. A slim Kurdish soldier who has not seen nor heard of his mother for two years learns that she is in one of the refugee convoys heading towards his checkpoint, and we dash after him as he frantically searches for her amongst the refugees. Finally, he finds her and breaks down weeping in her arms as she gently admonishes him to compose himself as a grown man.

Much as in the previous film Lévy’s commitments to Jewish-Muslim dialogue were on full display before the screening. “If I had to say what the main difference is between this and Peshmerga, it is that in this new movie I make a stronger plea not just for Kurdistan, but for the cause of the independence of Kurdistan,” he said. He declared his solidarity as a representative of the Jews, who are much like the Kurds one “the oldest nations.”

Though Peshmerga was much more of a travelogue, taking the viewer through a leisurely tour of ruins of lands sacred for both the Yazedi and Jews, this film is also part of the same ecumenical agenda. The imagery that Levy is most drawn to is the symbolic manifestation of poignant multi-confessional tolerance. A Muslim-Kurdish unit recaptures a Christian town and after entering the rubble strewn courtyard where the Jihadists had taken target practice against Christian icons, they clamber up over the dome to triumphantly reinstall the cross. We watch as a Muslim Imam, a Christian chaplain and a Yazedi priest all pray together as one in a town recaptured from ISIS. The film posits the noble Kurds as the very refractive double of their Islamist enemies.

The night before the screening, elite detachments of the Iraqi army had made an unexpectedly quick advance out of their stronghold of Eastern Mosul to recapture a government administrative center, the central bank, and the Mosul archaeological museum from Islamist militants. This was a pellucidly symbolic victory, especially after the world had watched grainy YouTube videos of iconoclastic ISIS fighters smashing ancient Babylonian and Assyrian statuary with hammers, and pillaging the rest to finance war.

The operation was being hailed by CNN as a harbinger of the successful cleaning out of the last furtive elements of ISIS from Mosul’s Western, but the Kurdish political elites had no illusions regarding facile promises of the “conclusion in sight.” At the sadly alcohol free-reception that preceded the film, packed with ministers and Peshmerga in green camouflage, the government’s spokesman informed me that the Kurds harbored no illusion that the final push into Western Mosul would be facile. The old city with its narrow streets would take months to retake and the Peshmerga had already lay down 1694 lives for the cause.

A Kurdish journalist who had spent years living in Canada informed me that unlike the battle-hardened Kurdish Peshmerga, the central Iraqi government’s troops did not inspire much confidence. “They are tough guys and they are OK for the tasks that they are intended for, but they look like the government got them off the streets,” he told me. Lévy also ponders that issue in the film with a wry aside in his voice-over. Training the camera at the macabre death’s-head ornament on the hood of one of the Iraqi special force vehicles, he underlines the symmetry between the nihilistic ideology of ISIS and the obvious joy that these “dogs of war” experience from combat. He is also justifiably sardonic in his judgment during the scene of Iraqi artillery bombardment, which, rather than the precision bombardment we have promised, is literally measured out on the back of an envelope and with a thumb flickered “a little bit to the left.”

By the beginning of this year—and by the end of the movie—the Kurds feel that they have done their part for the struggle, and amid a solemn tea ceremony hand over strategic command of their front to the Iraqis. Mosul remains a bastion of Arab nationalism, and the Peshmerga do not want to shoulder the responsibility (or the great cost in blood) of having to retake the city for an Iraqi central government from which they would separate tomorrow if it was at all possible.

Suggestively, at the conclusion of the film, the mustachioed and swashbuckling general Sirwan Barzani, whom admiringly described to me as “Byronic,”-reiterates the Kurd’s implicit offer to the coalition and to the rest of the world. The Kurdish fighters would wade into the claustrophobic ancient alleys of the old city of east Mosul only if the act earned them international recognition and statehood. Barzani sat in the row behind me, bantering with his uncle, Nechervan Barzani, the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, who had shown up at the screening in a black leather jacket.

“So you would retake Mosul for Baghdad in exchange for international recognition?” I asked Barzani after the screening. “That does not sound like a great bargain to me!”

“Well, I think it does!’ the general riposted with a twinkle in his eye as he rushed out of the movie theater back to the front lines.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.