Only the Dead




A record of life in Iraq from 2003 onwards as experienced by journalist Michael Ware.


Only the Dead


If ever a film deserved to be described as offering an inside story, this is it. The story in question is that of Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the person who can tell it from personal experience is Michael Ware, war correspondent for Time magazine and for CNN. Indeed, this film is very much his. He delivers the narration which he wrote himself and, in addition to being a co-producer, he is credited as co-director with Bill Guttentag. Furthermore, the earlier footage taken in Baghdad consists of what he himself shot with his own camera and the whole film consists of events in which he participated (he would spend seven years in Iraq altogether although the film more or less stops short in 2007).

Only the Dead records a personal journey that changed Wade’s outlook. He describes himself as an Australian in his thirties from a small-town background eager to get out and relishing the fact that journalism could help him to achieve that by taking him to Iraq to hunt down material. Seven years later what he had seen would have destroyed any notion of war being exciting and would leave him both horrified at the violence within mankind and fearful that some tendency of that sort lurks inside all of us.

But, if that is the personal arc to be found in Only the Dead, the main focus is on expressing the nature of what he saw. Soon after his arrival in Baghdad, he sought out insurgents to understand the guerilla warfare, the use of car bombs and the jihad attitude that produced men who, rather than risking their lives, would embrace death as suicide bombers. His known interest in this issue led to his becoming the recipient of videos from the extremist Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. However unusual his own position (which would lead to his arrest by these men and a narrow escape from death), the film’s impact comes largely from the on-the-spot pictures which vividly bring home to us what it meant to be living in Baghdad when the Americans had taken over but were meeting resistance in extreme forms.

The film then moves on through the next few years – to Fallujah, Ramadi and other places – with Ware accompanying American forces on missions against the enemy who, under Al- Zarqawi, would become ever more brutal (beheadings and street executions feature in the film’s footage). All of this retains the powerful sense of immediacy that comes from the authenticity of what is being caught direct on camera, but it is also the kind of thing that we have seen on screen before in other documentaries or in fact-based dramas. Consequently it is the first third, so specific to the experience in Baghdad, that stands out: what follows is grim and real but also, alas, almost too familiar and relentless.



Featuring Michael Ware.


Dir Bill Guttentag and Michael Ware, Pro Paddy McDonald and Michael Ware, Screenplay Michael Ware and Justine A. Rosenthal, Ed Jane Moran, Music Michael Yezerski.


Wolfhound Pictures/Penance Films-Dogwoof.
77 mins. Australia/Iran. 2015. Rel: 15 February 2016. Cert. 18.