The real world: Iraq

In the HBO documentary "Baghdad High," four high schoolers film their lives in a war zone.

Published August 5, 2008 4:50PM (EDT)

The American high school experience has been painfully, beautifully, but most of all exhaustively documented. What we know much less about, however, is what it's like to be a high schooler in other countries -- like, say, Iraq. Behold "Baghdad High," directed by Ivan O'Mahoney and Laura Winter, a documentary that aired on HBO Monday night. (I don't know about you, but I've been really digging these Monday night HBO docs. Did you see "Resolved"? Like "Spellbound" for debate nerds. Loved. It.)

It's 2006, the year of Saddam Hussein's trial and execution, and four senior boys are given cameras and asked to show us their experience. (The boys are a mix: one Shiite, one Sunni, one Christian, one Kurd.) They're normal kids -- they geek out to rap music, they dig Britney Spears, they play "Hotel California" (badly) on the guitar -- but we watch as their world literally explodes into violence, chaos and frustration at the very moment their adult lives begin. As one boy slogs outside at night (once again) to fix the family's generator, he details the daily grind: "Anyone walking around with mobile phone will be robbed," he says, as if complaining about the traffic. Tell that to your teen next time he or she begs for the new iPhone.

Another striking cultural difference is how little interaction, compared with their American counterparts, the boys have with the opposite sex. No girls are admitted in the school. I think of the American male high school experience as a parade of Maxim magazines and XBox games; meanwhile, these boys goof around in their rooms, and the only women we see are mothers and relatives. It's a little girl who delivers one of the doc's most poignant lines: "I would pray at every birthday that the situation would become safe." Um, she's like 6. Back then, I was all "Wah, where's my Easy-Bake oven?"

"Baghdad High" will be available on HBO on Demand through Sept. 21. Any American teenagers who think they have it bad should watch this immediately. "I feel like I'm in prison," says one kid, as bombs explode outside. It's the hyperbolic language all teenagers use -- except this time, you really believe it.

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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