‘We can be the good guys too’: Arab heroes fight ISIS in Hollywood film ‘Mosul’

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Mosul is the city from which ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi pronounced the establishment of his so-called caliphate in 2014. The Iraqi city became an ISIS stronghold until 2016, when local militias and allies mobilized to liberate Iraq’s second largest city from ISIS rule.

Read more: ISIS tried to destroy this church, now Muslims and Christians join hands to rebuild

Now the story of ISIS’ defeat has attracted Hollywood’s attention. The new Netflix film ‘Mosul’ tells the true story of an elite police unit, the Nineveh SWAT Team, made up of brave Iraqi men who drove ISIS out of their city.

‘Mosul’ is the first Hollywood action movie shot entirely in Arabic. Its Middle Eastern characters are the heroes of the plot, in contrast to the common depiction of Arab characters as villains in Hollywood films.

“It is significant for the world to see that we are not all the same and that we can be the good guys too,” Iraqi-born lead actor Thaer al-Shayei told Al Arabiya English.

Iraqi actor Thaer al-Shayei in Hollywood's new film 'Mosul.' (Courtesy of Al-Shayei)
Iraqi actor Thaer al-Shayei in Hollywood's new film 'Mosul.' (Courtesy of Al-Shayei)

Sudanese actor Waleed Elgadi, who stars alongside al-Shayei, said the film overturns Western stereotypes of Arabs as terrorists or refugees.

“Rarely do we see Arabs positively portrayed on our cinema screens. Often they are a plot device to further the story along, a villain for the lead to overcome...Not in Mosul. As an Arab actor and budding writer it gives me hope: Our turn will come,” Elgadi said.

Cast of Arab actors

Described as a revenge action thriller by Elgadi, ‘Mosul’ was produced by Joe and Anthony Russo, the team behind the blockbuster “Avengers: Endgame,” the highest grossing film of all time.

The producers chose all Arab actors for the film, which is in Iraqi dialect with English subtitles. Elgadi said the cast knew how significant the film was for the Arab world and was motivated to work “at the top of their game

“We all knew the responsibility that we had about representing this story in the best way and we also knew the opportunity we were being given here. It kind of finally felt like it’s our time to tell this story you know,” Elgadi said.

Iraqis who lived in Mosul during ISIS rule and experienced the conflict firsthand were brought in to advise the actors on-set during filming in Morocco.

Elgadi said he, along with other actors in the film, have received messages of appreciation from Iraqis about the portrayal of the battle for Mosul, as well as the film set.

“All of us as a cast, are getting messages of love and support from Iraqis from across the world in going about the authenticity of how good it looks and how the art department managed to recreate the streets of Mosul, street by street,” he said.

Mosul on screen

The Hollywood rendition is not the first time the story of the battle for Mosul has been told on camera.

Filmmaker Olivier Sarbil risked his life following an elite team of Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service for six months in 2016, as the soldiers fought their way house by house through the city to drive out ISIS. The footage turned into the documentary “Mosul,” giving viewers an intimate view of four Iraqi soldiers as they faced snipers, suicide bombers, and drone attacks, and lost family and friends in the process.

“The soldiers were fighting ISIS street-by-street, house-by-house and suffering casualties every day. By the time I finished filming, more than half of the squad I was with had been killed or wounded in the battle,” Sarbil told Al Arabiya English.

Mosul documentary (courtesy of Olivier Sarbil)
Mosul documentary (courtesy of Olivier Sarbil)

Sarbil’s “Mosul” garnered many accolades including a US Emmy Award for outstanding cinematography.

Sarbil said it is great to see Hollywood making a film about what he witnessed.

“Western audiences are used to seeing US soldiers cast as the heroes in films about Iraq, but here hopefully we will have a chance to see a different side to the story that will challenge the stereotypes of Arab fighters,” said Sarbil in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

He said Hollywood’s decision to have its film in Arabic with subtitles will add to its authenticity.

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