In October 2016, an army of over 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and militia moved to liberate Mosul, the country’s second largest city, from ISIS.
When Daniel Gabriel - a former CIA counterterrorism officer who had completed six tours in Iraq and Afghanistan - heard about the plan, he used his connections in the Iraqi government to capture the event via embedded journalist Ali Maula and several crews of combat cameramen.
Gabriel’s team had unprecedented access to the campaign, recording as Iraqi forces liberated their country and eliminated ISIS from Mosul. After shooting hundreds of hours of raw footage and interviews, it was clear that the director had an opportunity to make a powerful film about the intensity, heroism and heartbreak of the complex military operation.
The result is Mosul, a thoughtful and informative documentary that is both a compelling record of what happened in the city and a warning that sectarian differences in Iraq - between the majority Shiites and the minority Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and others - could well open the door to future conflict.
Mosul is an incredibly tense and immersive experience. Ali Maula and the film's crew follow Iraqi soldiers to the front line, dodging ISIS snipers and suicide bombers to get some truly stunning and disturbing footage.
While this footage is tragically familiar, what sets Gabriel’s documentary apart is his decision to focus on sectarianism. With Ali Maula as our guide, we hear from the country’s many different voices - all with a vested interest in the liberation.
Mosul introduces us to some fascinating characters - an expansive Sunni tribal leader called the crocodile, lawyer-turned-warrior Captain Alaa Atah and Um Hanadi, an Iranian-backed female militia leader avenging the death of her husband.
All groups have their own motivations and this is an uneasy alliance. The situation is extremely complex and the truth is hard to grasp.
Meanwhile, the scars of ISIS occupation are clear to see - from the death and destruction to the refugees who inhabit relief camps. When Mosul is finally liberated in July 2017, there is nothing to celebrate, just a devastated city and the fear of what comes next.
Ali Maula’s main reason for joining the liberation forces was to interview an ISIS defector in order to understand his motives and his beliefs. He gets his wish in the figure of prominent ISIS recruiter, Nasser Issa. Held by Iraqi police and facing execution, Issa is defiant. He predicts that his abhorrent ideology will outlive him and we fear that, in this, he may well be correct.
Balancing a range of viewpoints, Mosul is an informative and thought-provoking experience. The documentary leaves us with an unsettling question from Ali Maula (an interpretation of the famous George Santayana quotation), if we forget or destroy history we may well be doomed to repeat it.