In the opening moments of The Fight for Mosul, a fly on the wall documentary about the ferocious nine month battle to reclaim the Iraqi city from Isis, a window is blown in by gunfire and one soldier narrowly avoids being killed.
The message is clear: the viewer is not to be spared the brutal reality of urban combat in a film which gives us almost unprecedented access to the front line, captured by one lone cameraman Olivier Sarbil.
Sarbil is no stranger to warfare, having covered conflicts all over the world from Mali and the Ukraine to Syria and Libya – where he was horribly injured as he filmed the 2011 battle for Sirte.
Caught in the blast of an RPG, his face, leg and arm were torn to shreds and he spent eight months in hospital.
Yet Sarbil says that it was Mosul which proved to be his most punishing mission yet. Embedded with a ten strong Iraqi special forces team for weeks at a time over nine months he slept and ate alongside them as they moved from one house to the next – some abandoned, some occupied by civilians– narrowly escaping injury himself among the car bombs, snipers and suicide bombers that were the daily reality of life in the beleaguered city.
His extraordinary access allowed him to capture the ferocious reality of the fight to take back the city of Mosul, but also the more intimate moments of life behind the front line.
Without a translator, and speaking no Arabic it was an often lonely quest, but one Sarbil felt was vital. “We’ve tried to get something different with this film – something more visceral,” he says. “So yes, we see the horrible reality of battle, but we also see the soldiers talking to their girlfriends, taking a smoke.
“I think it’s rare to see Arab fighters portrayed in this way. I wanted to show that they were the same as any other soldier – that they live like us, they love like us, they suffer like us.”
What gave you the idea for this film?
A few months earlier I had met the squadron’s captain Anmar in Fallujah. He spoke a little English and as we talked I had a strong sense there was a film to be made about his squadron – young men who were only in their early twenties but ready to sacrifice their lives to reclaim their country. I told him to stay in touch as I wanted to tell his story and he contacted me two weeks before the offensive in Mosul was launched. I flew to Iraq and went to meet them where they were stationed.
How did you achieve such intimate access?
It would never have happened without the overall commander of Anmar’s unit. We had to build a relationship, and we had to do it without language as he didn’t speak English. We had two weeks watching each other and trying to get that common understanding about why I was there. Once he had accepted me he was unquestioningly on my side.
Did it take time to build trust with Anmar’s men?
They were definitely wary at first. When we were editing the film back in London and doing the translation you could sometimes hear them talking about me – “what is he doing? why is he filming us eating?’’. But over time we built a strong relationship. After a while my camera became invisible to them. I think the fact I having been wounded helped. I have many scars and they are testament to the fact that I know about suffering.
In the film we see soldiers sometimes behaving with a degree of brutality towards the civilian population
Isis was hiding among the civilian population – among pregnant women and children– so the squad were naturally suspicious of anyone they encountered. It was stressful, and in the film there are a few moments where they don’t look their best. At the same time this is the reality of war: people do extraordinary things one day and the next they show the worst of themselves. This film is about the many shades of grey in combat. And much as I grew to care for the men, you can never lose sight of the fact that you are there to do a job, not a PR offensive on their behalf.
Aside from the daily reality of living in a war zone what were some of the hardest challenges?
The isolation. Aside from Anmar no-one spoke English. I was able to communicate by body language, but ultimately there was a barrier, so mentally it was very hard– the only things I had to keep me company was my podcast.
The logistics were difficult too – I didn’t always have electricity to charge my equipment and I went two weeks without a shower.
In the film there is a fast moving sequence where, briefly, we see a fighter who has been beheaded. What made you include this image?
He was a Daesh fighter the squad found on the street in the aftermath of one battle. There are not many dead bodies in the film and there’s no message behind that picture. I just felt it was important in that small sequence to show the reality of war.
You also know that first hand
I was with a group of rebels in the heart of very fierce fighting when an RPG blew up. Four of the five strong team were killed and I survived with one other man. I woke up in an open field with half of my face hanging off. I was literally in pieces. I remember the rebels standing over me crying, saying “please don’t die’”. On the fourth day a French sanitary jet came to pick me up and I spent eight months in a military hospital in France. I had 35 surgeries, I lost a finger and it took me months to regain the use of my hands. They will never be the same: I was a pianist and I loved to draw so that is the one thing I regret. But you learn to live with it.
Knowing the risks – and the consequences – did you feel scared?
Of course– but the biggest risk assessment is the one you make it before you get on the plane. If you want to cover this kind of violent battle, you make the decision before you go that once you are there you will place your trust in the men you are with. You also have to know when to get out. Each time I left, it happened in a heartbeat – I would pack my bags, call the guys back at base and tell them I had to leave.
Has covering this conflict left a legacy?
Absolutely. I don’t have flashbacks, but the brutality of the conflict is something you carry within you. Of the ten men squad I was with more than half were wounded or killed. Part of you wonders why you have been spared – there’s no reason other than luck, and that can eat away at you.
What drives you to take such risks?
I am not a war junkie. I’m just following the story, and if it is in a war zone and I have good access I will go. But I have to admit there is an egotism to this kind of work, and sometimes it is harder for the ones that love you, like my wife, who are left behind. After Mosul I can feel something changing. It was the toughest battle I’ve ever covered and I find myself wondering if I can go to war again.
The Fight for Mosul is on Channel 4 on Tuesday 7th November at 10pm