NEW YORK—In a scene from The Battle of Mosul, Bernard-Henri Lévy’s newest film, three religious leaders—a Yazidi, a Christian and a Muslim—stand among the ruins of a Kurdish village formerly held by the Islamic State. Facing the camera in a half circle, the three men look at each other and begin praying simultaneously in Kurdish, Arabic and Aramaic. “God protect Kurdistan, peshmerga [Iraqi Kurdish soldiers], ward off enemies, keep invaders away,” they say. It makes for a rare moment of fraternity, a paradoxically harmonious Babel that embodies one of the French philosopher’s major preoccupations: the need for reconciliation in the face of terror.
Lévy—so famous in France that he is known solely by his initials, BHL—presented The Battle of Mosul in a private screening at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York City on March 30. François Delattre, the permanent representative of France to the United Nations and a former ambassador of France to the United States in Washington D.C., introduced Lévy as “a fighter with a compass.” He praised Lévy’s crusade against barbarism and anti-Semitism and his “fight for Enlightenment values,” which Delattre calls “the fight of our generation.”
This intention is made clear in Lévy’s newest project. “It is a subjective film,” Lévy said as he addressed the audience at the Florence Gould Theater. He anticipated that viewers would see his “focuses and biases” throughout the documentary.
A companion to, if not a continuation of Peshmerga, the documentary Lévy premiered at a special screening in Cannes last year, The Battle of Mosul follows a group of peshmerga, a term which translates as “those who stand in the face of death,” as they vie to recapture the city of Mosul in Northern Iraq from the Islamic State. Filming began on October 17, 2016, a day after the Iraqi government launched its most ambitious offensive since the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003. Lévy and his crew travel with the fighters on the ground as they advance towards Mosul, chronicling the burial ceremonies of fallen soldiers, the military operations won by the peshmerga, and their somnambulatory walk through a church courtyard that ISIS militants had used for target practice. The visceral images of war-torn locales and wounded peshmerga are interspersed with delicate scenes of pathos, as when a handful of children swarm the Kurdish soldiers who liberated their city by yelling “peshmerga!” or when a soldier breaks into sobs after he reunites with his estranged mother. It is during moments like these that the voiceover by Lévy veers away from mere synthesis of the gaps in the narration and provides a nuanced commentary on the human dimension of the brutal conflict.
Lévy makes no secret that The Battle of Mosul is an editorialized, political film. It reads like a celebration of peshmerga, who, in the words of BHL, embody “la grandeur,” an amalgam of courage and tolerance. More than a heroic depiction of soldiers on the front lines, the film builds a powerful case for the independence of Kurdistan. In his commentary both on- and off- screen, Lévy insists that the Kurds have earned the right to self-determination on account of their willingness to fight ISIS alongside the Iraqi army, and that the creation of a Kurdish state is only possible with the support of foreign actors.
During the Q&A session that followed the screening, the French intellectual said he envisions “an international plan for Mosul, a Marshall Plan” that would bring together “Arabs, Turks, Iranians, the West, and Kurds” in a joint effort to draw the boundaries of an independent Kurdistan. He also claimed that the referendum for Kurdish independence would need a Western “godfather,” such as the United States or France. Yet it seems obvious that e opposition to this measure will be fierce: Kurdistan is home to the one of the world’s richest oil reserves, and full autonomy would certainly impact its relationship with Iraq and its neighbors.
The French philosopher is nevertheless hopeful. He predicts that an independent Kurdistan will be a “factor of stability” in the area. Above all, he believes in the commitment, resilience and valor of the peshmerga. Thinking wistfully about his three months with the Kurdish convoy, he counted himself a “privileged witness of their bravery.” And for a fleeting hour, his viewers did, too.
In the photo: The Kurdish Peshmerga platoon of the Joint Iraqi Security Company marches in Mosul, Iraq, 2003 (Photo by Pfc. James Matise/US Army).