Like all the best documentaries, Once Upon a Time in Iraq is just some people telling a story. Here they are dramatically lit, often no more than faces emerging from the darkness: the civilians, journalists and soldiers who had no option but to experience the war in Iraq first-hand. It was happening in front of them, to them. It’s the viewpoint that perspective – a slippery notion – too easily avoids.
At first we are not even certain who these people are, but that doesn’t make their stories any less powerful. Across five shattering instalments, Once Upon a Time in Iraq gradually reveals their former identities, peeling back layers: translators trying to survive; journalists trying to bear witness; soldiers who came to bestow freedom. There are no politicians offering global justifications or hindsight-tinged regrets here; participation is limited to folks with front-row seats. When the politicians do appear it’s in the comprehensive archive footage of the period, speaking the language of victory and freedom. None of what they have to say has aged well.
Once Upon a Time in Iraq is, in short, the story of America and its allies overthrowing a despotic regime and then setting about making things much, much worse, causing untold suffering in the process and destabilising an entire region for decades afterwards. Most of the participants show obvious signs of the toll taken. “I didn’t do good with the reintegration,” says Lt Col Nate Sassaman, a soldier the journalist Dexter Filkins called “the most impressive officer I met in Iraq”. For some, recounting the past means reliving it – one marine takes a big swig of tequila from the bottle before he starts.
The heart of the story comes from the Iraqis, some of whom were still kids when the invasion began; others were mothers whose children were killed or injured. At the start, Waleed Nesyif, who quickly establishes himself as a plain-speaking, chain-smoking star, watches footage of himself as an 18-year-old translator working for western journalists way back in 2003. “Am I wrong, or did I sound like Borat?” he says. Long before the end, his disillusionment is complete.
Prior to the war many Iraqis like Nesyif yearned for freedom, but within weeks of the invasion they were reduced to asking for, as he put it, “dignity, electricity and some semblance of security”. None of those was forthcoming; some still aren’t. Even during filming the electricity fails mid-interview. In the chaos that followed the invasion, insurgency took root. In the face of insurgency, the cruelty of the occupying forces intensified.
Although the documentary throws up larger questions – was all the suffering the result of a war that was misconceived, poorly planned and spectacularly badly executed, or is all war like that? – director James Bluemel wisely focuses on personal stories. As Nesyif remarked when the series aired last summer: “The human face of this documentary is its greatest achievement.”
The whole thing is still available to stream, but a word of warning: Once Upon a Time in Iraq is the polar opposite of binge viewing. Its humanity doesn’t make it any less harrowing – you will need time to decompress between episodes. A lot of what makes it so difficult to watch is the presumption that you already know the story – as bad as you thought it was, it was worse than you dared imagine.