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The Iraq war, spliced for a YouTube world

May 15, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — There's no tribal council or immunity challenge. Viewers don't vote off their least favorite. But reality TV has come of age in Iraq with a new show about some well-spoken twentysomethings who share their lives, fears and dreams as cameras follow them around one of the world's most dangerous cities.

It's part documentary, part "The Real World -- Baghdad." Capitalizing on the personalized video craze popularized by Internet sites such as YouTube and MySpace, the Web-based series, called "Hometown Baghdad," has attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers worldwide since its March debut. It's popular everywhere, that is, except Iraq, where the program remains largely unknown because of the scarcity of high-speed Internet.

Filmed by Iraqis in the capital, at the height of last summer's sectarian clashes, and edited by Americans in New York, the program follows the lives of three young men as they cope with challenges ranging from daily power outages to the occasional discovery of bodies outside their doors.

There's Ausama, the shy, baby-faced undergraduate who laments the difficulties of dating amid Baghdad's insecurity and takes cameras on a tour of his family's ransacked, bullet-scarred home.

Saif is a slightly embittered aspiring dentist, worried about his career prospects and desperate to get out of Iraq.

Adel is the graffiti-spraying, electric-guitar-playing bad boy who pours his pain into heavy metal lyrics, his dreams of being a rock star on hiatus like his band, which fled the country.

A female participant was dropped from the show because the logistics of filming her in the Green Zone were too daunting.

It's a captivating if narrow slice of the Iraq conflict, spliced for the MTV generation. Hip, English-speaking stars provide a largely upper-middle-class viewpoint in sync with most Western viewers. They are Muslim, but none is particularly devout. They're not among the anti-American militants, and none will ever be forced to take risky jobs with the Iraqi police or army, unlike their less fortunate and less educated peers.

That's by design, say the show's creators, who sifted through 50 audition tapes before settling on three young people they hoped would resonate with U.S. viewers. The show was aimed at Westerners, not Iraqis, the producers say.

"This was about trying to engage Americans with the rest of the world," said Laurie Meadoff, executive producer of Chat the Planet, a New York-based production company specializing in using the Internet to link youths from around the world.

"This is a kind of news for the YouTube generation," said Meadoff, who previously produced a videoconference aired on MTV linking students in Ohio and Baghdad. "It's not about the politics. It's about the stories. We really believe this show has hit a chord."

Released three times a week on a variety of Internet sites, including, the two-minute installments have attracted more than 2 million views from 110 countries and elicited thousands of comments on message boards.

Producers originally hoped to sell the show to American television, but networks turned them down, calling the idea too depressing and predicting U.S. audiences were "saturated" with Iraq. Now some of those network executives have asked producers to repackage the program into a six-part TV series.

Adel, 23, an engineering student and aspiring musician, is what Hollywood agents might call the "breakout star" of the show. (His last name and other personal details were omitted for security reasons.) Good looks and unabashed sensitivity have made him a hit with many viewers.

The episode "Songs of Pain," which shows Adel using music to cope with Iraq's turmoil, received nearly 650,000 hits and 3,000 comments on YouTube. Rolling Stone magazine ran a blurb about the show with a picture of him jamming on his guitar. Female viewers call him "hot" on message boards, and some have sent personal e-mails.

In Iraq, he's just another recent college graduate. Only his family and half a dozen friends know about the show. Even Adel has difficulty watching it via his slow, unreliable Internet connection. It takes nearly an hour to watch a two-minute segment, he said.

Although he has received e-mails from viewers around the world, Adel has never been recognized on the street, and that's fine with him. In Iraq these days, no one wants to stand out.

"I hope the show gets a lot more attention," Adel said in an interview. "But not here. In Iraq you can get killed for the stupidest of reasons. There are probably people who would want to make an example of me."

Adel's parents urged him not to participate. Camera crews are often subject to arrest or worse by insurgents, militias or U.S. troops, who suspect someone taking pictures might be spying.

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