There are times during tonight’s documentary ONLY THE DEAD when images speak for themselves. And often, those are the times when you most want to look away.
Directed by two-time Oscar winner Bill Guttentag in collaboration with Australian journalist Michael Ware, ONLY THE DEAD examines the Iraq war and its moral consequence through the story of the rise and fall of jihadi terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the progenitor of ISIS.
It throws the viewer into situations most of us can barely even contemplate due to the fact that the film is told largely through hand-held video footage, which was culled from hundreds of hours that Ware shot while reporting over the course of the war. It is in your face, extremely confronting and at times, most harrowing.
The Australian war correspondent-turned filmmaker Ware has said that he hopes his feature documentary will help enlighten global audiences on the origins of Islamic State, which I believe it does – and much more. The film is an intensely personal account of the Australian’s own experiences during eight years in Iraq as a correspondent for CNN and Time magazine, and was even filmed on a video camera he’d bought on the black market in Kurdistan.
“The viewer, like I did on the ground in reality, will witness the birth of Islamic State,” said Ware in an interview upon the film’s release. “You will also see how America’s young men, soldiers and marines, fight these people…but more importantly how it shaves away at their souls. When you have to reach out and fight against a great darkness, that darkness touches you back.” It is heart-stopping footage at times and a beyond difficult watch during others, taking us as close to the experience of being at the frontline of a real war as possible without well, actually being there.
One of the key narratives in the film is Ware’s pursuit of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the aforementioned al-Qaida leader whom he describes as a “hideous genius” and the creator of Islamic State. Ware actually met al- Zarqawi after slowly earning the trust of the Iraqi insurgents in Baghdad in 2003. After a suicide bombing - which he captured on film - he first heard the notorious leader’s name, and in early 2004 was escorted to one of the first Islamic State training camps. Once again even just watching the footage taken inside the camp is terrifying, it’s difficult to comprehend how Ware managed to keep his cool, let alone film the whole thing. After al-Zarqawi created his first gruesome propaganda video showing the beheading of American hostage Nicholas Berg, he walked over to Ware, handed him the raw material and simply said, “give this to the infidel”.
In interviews Ware has acknowledged the personal toll that spending time in Iraq took on his spirit, leading a life during those eight long years that can never be forgotten. “All soldiers and marines know that place you must go to in your head and your heart to fight,” he has said. “It’s a very animalistic and brutal place. It’s also a place filled with love among the men fighting on the front line. I went to that place as well. War became my normal. It’s ghastly the things you become accustomed to.”
A harrowing and graphic account of both sides of the war zone, ONLY THE DEAD is an unmissable film… but don’t go waiting around for any bright moments to save the day. The unique, on-the-ground view delivers scenes here that you can't un-see - much as you might want to - and is most definitely a look at the Iraq war unlike any other.
ONLY THE DEAD premieres Thursday 3rd November at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel 39