Filmmakers, Joe and Anthony Russo – the directing duo behind the highest grossing film of all-time, Avengers: Endgame – premiered Hollywood’s first ever all-Arabic action film this week at the Venice Film Festival. Making his directorial debut, Matthew Michael Carnahan transforms a New Yorker feature about the police’s 100,000 strong Nineveh SWAT team (made completely of officers who lost their families to ISIS) written by Iraqi journalist Ali Maula who was embedded in Mosul during the battle with ISIS that raged in the devastated Iraqi city in 2016 and 2017, into a tense action documentary-film in which the apocalyptic battle is presented as a chaotic middle that has no beginning or end.
The Russos’ experience of the "global fandom for the Marvel movies" had convinced them of the pressing need to "find stories from every corner of the globe to bring to the rest of the world". And for the American team behind the movie, this was a story that urgently needed telling, even as the brothers were busy crafting two giant Avengers blockbusters. The Russos’ are self-proclaimed "news junkies" that are constantly reading the news to help inform their work on the many Marvel films. Speaking to Esquire magazine, Joe Russo explains that he first became aware of the police officers through an article in the New Yorker that struck a chord with him, "I'd never read a piece of journalism and cried at the end. The plight of this team and everyone in Mosul brought me to tears,” he said.
The entire film was shot in the Arabic dialect spoken in Iraq, a decision Carnahan says was made to further punctuate the documentary-like approach to the story. Speaking to Deadline about this decision, Anthony Russo said, “I think that was part of his process of trying to make it as authentic to the actual experience as possible," he explained. "We are not Iraqis, so we are quite removed from that experience. So, any opportunity we can find on a creative level - any creative technique that we can employ to get us closer to that authentic story - was really valuable.”
Assisting them in their quest for authenticity was Iraqi executive producer Mohamed Al Daradji, who was consulted on casting the actors and crew members from the Middle East and North Africa and the displaced Iraqi diaspora, and helped transport them from Iraq to Morocco where the film was shot. He also lent his own experience of life in post-Saddam Mosul to ensure the story remained truthful.
Only four months after Mosul was finally retaken in December 2017, shooting started in secret in Morocco for security reasons. “Lord of the Rings” production designer Phil Ivey was hired to make the Morocco locations match the Mosul look they were trying to convey, and you can feel the broken soul of a city in his sets.
Al Daradji told reporters in Venice that he is very optimistic that this film can “open the road for Hollywood to make more positive films about the Arab world and the Middle East.”
"Unfortunately we have been portrayed in a bad way for a long time. I have suffered from that, we all have had experiences from it," he told reporters.
But in this film the heroes are "recognizably Iraqi, Arab and Muslim... speaking just like police in Mosul do... We never have had the chance to have an Arab story shown in this positive way. By the way, we are human beings like you", he joked wryly.
When it comes to Hollywood, Arabs are often demeaned or demonised, but the producers said they wanted their film to be a ‘turning point’ in the way Muslims were portrayed on the big screen. But Despite Russos’ claims of authenticity, people are pointing out that the authenticity of the film is hollow as it is written and directed by someone who learned about the story from an American magazine article and isn’t fluent in Arabic himself. Although he has written several similarly explosive films before, Carnahan hasn’t directed a film before, which many felt followed Hollywood’s long history of giving opportunities to inexperienced white men while people of colour struggle to break through.
Writing for Indie Wire, David Ehrlich criticised the characters of the film for falling into familiar Western archetypes because of Carnahan’s insistence that these men are just like “us” which he says deprives them of the chance to be anyone else. “Even their quieter moments are distressingly committed to humanising them in a way that American viewers might appreciate,” he wrote.
“They watch a Kuwaiti soap opera during a lull in the action, and exchange steroidal one-liners as if they’re consciously trying to prove that brown people can sell Michael Bay dialogue. On their own, such overt attempts to connect with audiences weaned on “The Hurt Locker” are benign, but “Mosul” hardly ever balances them out with flourishes that feel unique to the people on the Nineveh SWAT Team. If Carnahan mercifully avoids cheap Muslim stereotypes, he only manages to do so by avoiding virtually everything else as well.”
The entire film was shot in the Arabic dialect spoken in Iraq, a decision Carnahan says was made to further punctuate the documentary-like approach to the story.
But Despite Russos’ claims of authenticity, people are pointing out that the authenticity of the film is hollow as it is written and directed by someone who learned about the story from an American magazine article and isn’t fluent in Arabic himself.