In the documentaries “Peshmerga” and “The Battle of Mosul,” Bernard-Henri Lévy offers a portrait of the fighters trying to repel the Islamic State.
Although he supplies a running narration, the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy steps in front of the camera only occasionally in “Peshmerga” and “The Battle of Mosul,” and that is mostly to the benefit of this pair of documentaries he directed. “Peshmerga,” the longer of the two, aims to put faces on the Kurdish soldiers fighting the Islamic State in Iraqi Kurdistan, a region where conflicts have a tendency to dissolve into a blur of headlines and abstractions.
The multiple hats Lévy has worn throughout his career (war correspondent, philosopher) help keep the documentaries engaging on multiple fronts. Lévy is interested not only in the troops he accompanies, whose bravery he extols in purple, redundant language, but also the history of the region (it stretches across northern Iraq), from the ancient past to the 20th-century Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Besides the Kurds, many religious and ethnic groups have lived together peacefully in the region over the centuries. That includes Yazidis, who were targeted for genocide by the Islamic State. We also learn about Jewish history in the region, meet a Christian priest who sings in Aramaic and visit a monastery that seems almost eerily peaceful, considering the surroundings.
But both films are first and foremost battle diaries. “Peshmerga,” which takes its title from a name given to the Kurdish forces, follows the soldiers roughly northwest around a bending front line that separates territory held by the Kurds from that held by the Islamic State. The film introduces men like the military commander Sirwan Barzani and his uncle Massoud Barzani, who was president of Iraqi Kurdistan at the time of filming, and an all-female battalion. Other figures are there to tend to the wounded or to boost morale, like Helly Luv, the pop singer who is described as the Kurdish Madonna. Lévy praises a soldier he refers to as the “white-haired general,” only for that general to be killed offscreen — seconds, we are told, after a scene of a firefight that is included in the movie.
The combat is often filmed at frighteningly close range, and there are times when it is hard not to wonder who is doing Lévy’s filming, and with what kind of camera. (Is that a phone? A GoPro?) A cameraman named Tayyeb narrowly survives when a pickup truck hits a mine. Lévy marvels over drone footage of Mosul, a city he is surprised to find still looks like a bustling “capital of an almost-state.”
The city becomes the main front in “The Battle of Mosul,” a follow-up best seen after “Peshmerga,” not independently. Part sequel and part epilogue, it captures the city’s liberation from the Islamic State in 2016 and 2017. The rubble of buildings is seen more clearly, as is the confusion of the environment, although the second film does offer a few more moments to breathe, and even occasional, incongruous lightheartedness, like a little girl with a cat, chirping about her luck in escaping the Islamic State.
Not rated. In Kurdish, Arabic, English and French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes.
The Battle of Mosul
Not rated. In Kurdish, Arabic, English and French, with subtitles. Running time: 55 minutes.