Our story begins in 2003 just as the United States’ troops are landing in Iraq. Ghazwan, two of his his former colonels, and an Army friend recount how their hopeful dreams for the liberation of Iraq quickly unraveled into chaos. His colonels describe how important it was to have a translator who they could trust and how Ghazwan was that, and so much more.
Ghazwan initially volunteered as a translator upon the request of his parents. Ghazwan’s English was strong and his Sunni parents did not trust the U.S. military’s translators who, at the time, were predominantly Shia. Ghazwan heeded his parents request but his motivations for joining the troops were far more subconscious and complex than he himself was even aware of. Soon his involvement with the U.S. military would ignite in him a sense of self that he would have never dreamed possible. However, it would come at a deep and traumatic personal cost.
For his entire life, Ghazwan’s identity was buried deep under centuries of complex cultural confines. Born into a conservative, politically influential family, and the same tribe as Saddam Hussein, Ghazwan never quite fit in. As a boy, he rejected tradition by favoring the time he spent with the women of his family. His adolescence was spent in Europe with his father, an Iraqi ambassador, where he experienced life beyond his conservative home city of Tikrit. As an adult, he deftly avoided registering with the governing Ba’ath party, despite his powerful Ba’athist family. Now, with Saddam on the run and the Americans offering visions of a new Iraq, Ghazwan’s desperate and subconscious aspirations for political and social change took hold.
After several years of dedicated service, due to a change in command and his family ties, he is wrongfully accused of being a double agent, detained and tortured by the U.S. military for 75 days. Broken by prolonged interrogations searching for non-existent hidden truths, in the midst of despair and exhaustion Ghazwan confesses, for the first time ever, to the only thing he has been hiding: his sexual identity as a gay man. These words mean nothing to his interrogator but everything to him. Within confinement, with all physical freedoms taken from him, he has managed to find a new and most unexpected form of ultimate freedom.
During his detention, Ghazwan was moved through detention facilities in a system that would eventually dead end at Abu Ghraib. His fate was redirected thanks to his former colonel, Robert Nicholson, who returned for a visit after being stationed in a nearby city for some time. Shocked to learn of Ghazwan’s detention, Col. Nicholson immediately investigates and arranges for Ghazwan’s release when no substantial reason for detaining him was presented. Ghazwan is no longer safe in Iraq and after much struggle is able to escape to the United States as a refugee.
Our cameras pick him up on his arrival in San Francisco in 2008. Newly arrived, his infectious smile and giddy exclamations about the “American Dream” reflect a wonderful newfound sense of freedom. The honeymoon period is overwhelmingly joyous but does not last long.
From extreme poverty, grappling with crippling post traumatic stress and a brutal mugging, to the forging of a new community and a burgeoning career as a chef that lands him a spot on a Food Network competition show, the camera is there to witness all of Ghazwan’s highs and lows. We follow Ghazwan on his path to citizenship and along the way he faces his most difficult challenge yet. Ghazwan is tagged in series of subtly suggestive photos on Facebook that out him as a gay man. When his family in Iraq sees them, they lash out and insist that he take them down. They scold him for the shame that he will bring on the family and the tribe. Even being seven thousand miles away, his openness could socially ostracize his illustrious family.
Ghazwan finds himself torn between freedom and personal integrity and obligations to his family. Tensions between him and his family rise when Ghazwan, shocked and angered by a series of gay killings in Iraq, takes to social media in bold defense of gay rights. In this moment, his activism is born and his identity further forged.
As Ghazwan’s straight Iraqi friends in the U.S. learn to accept him for who he is, Ghazwan sees this is a sign that he can have a real impact on the world and that change for LGBT people in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries will one day be possible.
Finally, in the films denouement, Ghazwan has settled into his new country. His career is on the rise, he has overcome much of his past suffering and trauma and, being the gregarious and generous cultural liaison that he is, has built a strong community around him. He has forged a Middle Eastern LGBT Group that gathers together to celebrate once a month. This community will never be a replacement for the family he loves so much, but they fill a slice of the void created by his separation from them. And perhaps more importantly, they will accept him for who he is and provide strength for each other. Ghazwan’s quest for survival, freedom and self-expression comes at great personal expense but, for Ghazwan, the opportunity to bring about change outweighs his sacrifice.
From Baghdad to The Bay is a longitudinal observational film that interweaves vérité scenes, intimate interviews, Ghazwan’s self-made video journals, archival footage and animations.
The film interweaves Ghazwan Alsharif’s traumatic past story with his present and travels a mostly linear path from the front seat of the roller coaster that is Ghazwan’s life.
Ghazwan’s back story in Iraq is told by combining interviews with two styles of animation. The first being heavily treated archival footage made to look as though it were hand painted. This footage is layered and slowed to a pace that conjures a dreamlike place; a past memory. In the second style, haunting hand-drawn animated graphics carry the viewer through some of Ghazwan’s darkest moments, including the torture he experienced while detained.
In Ghazwan’s present day story, vérité scenes immerse viewers in his journey as if they were there to experience it all. Interwoven with these vérité moments, Ghazwan narrates his own obstacles and accomplishments through check-in interviews that were captured over the years. Over these narrations Ghazwan’s new home begins to visually take shape as a character in the story. Rich with color and culture, the city of San Francisco represents the life that Ghazwan never dreamed possible ─ a life where he can be himself.
Additionally, Ghazwan’s self-made videos provide a surprising look at his inner personality. Some are silly and highly entertaining while others are dark and emotional ─ revealing truths not seen by our professional cameras. For nine years the camera has been a large part of Ghazwan’s life. Telling his story on camera has been a cathartic process. He is driven to share a side of himself that most of us would consider far too personal to expose. This vulnerability draws us into his story and connects us to a myriad of universal struggles in an intimate way. The documentary’s power comes from Ghazwan’s candor, raw exposure, and always-present endearing sense of humor.
“An incredible story.” San Francisco Chronicle
“…the stuff that nightmares—and dreams—are made of.” KQED Arts
“Grips viewers from beginning to end.” cineSOURCE Magazine
“A film that traces the remarkable journey Alsharif was lucky to survive.” SF Arts Magazine
“Powerful, sad, inspiring.” KALW