FRONTLINE Presents “Once Upon a Time in Iraq”— the Iraq War as You’ve Never Seen It Before

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A view of Al Nuri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq where ISIS declared a caliphate in 2015.

A view of Al Nuri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq where ISIS declared a caliphate in 2015. (Gus Palmer/Keo Films)

June 29, 2020

Once Upon a Time in Iraq
Tues., July 14, 2020
Streaming at 7/6c at pbs.org/frontline & in the PBS Video App
Airing at 9/8c on PBS and on YouTube
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In the more than 17 years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the country’s people have endured chaos, poverty and sectarian violence.

But today, the Iraq war and its bloody aftermath have largely been overshadowed in Western media, even as ordinary Iraqis continue to deal with the ongoing consequences.

Their voices take center stage in Once Upon a Time in Iraq, an unprecedented, two-hour FRONTLINE documentary special releasing July 14.

Taking Western viewers inside the realities of Saddam Hussein’s rule, the invasion, occupation, civil war and life under ISIS, the film tells the story of the war, the withdrawal and what followed through the personal accounts and lasting memories of Iraqis who lived through it.

Iraqis like Waleed Nesyif, who was a teenager when he started to hear rumors that the U.S. was about to invade. Compared to the American movies he and his friends enjoyed, life under Saddam was oppressive, so he was excited about a new chapter for his country: “When I hear statements like, ‘They hate our freedom and our democracy,’ its like—no, we actually love it, we fricking love it. That’s all we wanted,” he says.

He wasn’t alone: “When I saw them, I felt hope,” Ahmed Albasheer, now a famous Iraqi comedian, says of seeing American soldiers as a teen. He remembers inviting them to his house, eager to practice his English, and hoping Iraq would become “a country like America, this was my dream. Actually, that was lots of people’s dream.”

Um Ibrahim, who tells FRONTLINE Saddam executed 17 people from her family, remembers thinking that after his capture, “things would stay good, fine and safe forever.”

But that hope would be tragically short-lived as the country was torn apart by sectarian violence, and the emergence of ISIS.

In Once Upon a Time in Iraq, this tragedy is told through the eyes of people who experienced it firsthand — from a young cadet in the Iraqi army who recounts surviving an ISIS massacre that killed 1,700 of his peers, to a woman in a nearby town who helped to save the lives of 800 young men threatened by ISIS. A man who joined the terror group himself speaks from prison, sentenced to death.

We also hear from Omar Mohammed, a university professor from Mosul who risked his life as the anonymous author of a blog exposing atrocities committed by ISIS. “It’s very dangerous to forget,” he says of what the Iraqi people have endured over the years. “Because memory [is all t]hat’s left for us.”

As they reflect on the sweep of the past 17 years, the Iraqis featured in the film share insights into what it has meant to survive, and what they now strive for.

“They destroyed a whole country. Plunged it into corruption, sectarianism and war. They did all of that just to get rid of one person,” says a young woman named Sally Mars, who was just six years old when coalition troops entered Baghdad. “But it made me stronger. I learned a tough lesson. I learned the true value of peace.”

Directed by multi-award-winning filmmaker James Bluemel (Exodus), Once Upon a Time in Iraq premieres Tues., July 14. It will be available to watch in full at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App starting that night at 7/6c. It will premiere on PBS stations (check local listings) and on YouTube at 9/8c.

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Credits
Once Upon a Time in Iraq is a Keo Films Ltd. production for WGBH/FRONTLINE and BBC. It is filmed and directed by James Bluemel. The executive producers for Keo Films are Andrew Palmer and Will Anderson. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.

About FRONTLINE
FRONTLINE, U.S. television’s longest running investigative documentary series, explores the issues of our times through powerful storytelling. FRONTLINE has won every major journalism and broadcasting award, including 93 Emmy Awards and 24 Peabody Awards. Visit pbs.org/frontline and follow us on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and YouTube to learn more. FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Abrams Foundation, the Park Foundation, The John and Helen Glessner Family Trust and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.

Press Contact: frontlinemedia@wgbh.org, 617.300.5312

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