At the end of the Venice Film Festival world premiere of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s Mosul, the men of the cast embraced one another. As a packed Sala Grande began a seven-minute standing ovation for the movie, the cast members stood to soak in their moment. In the row behind them, producers Joe and Anthony Russo, who had developed the original New Yorker article on which the film is based, snapped a photo of the emotional scene in front of them. It was “electric”, Joe Russo said later. “They were sobbing. And so was I. It was a beautiful moment.”
In the middle of the throng was Suhail Dabbach, the Iraqi actor whose history with his home country’s political strife made Mosul all the more personal. It is felt in his performance in the movie, as Colonel Jasem, the leader of a band of Iraqi SWAT policemen who take the fight against ISIS personally, and struggle to avenge the loved ones they have lost. His quiet, commanding presence recalls the finest work given by Oscar winners like Tom Hanks or Daniel Day-Lewis, arriving so fully formed and multifaceted, and yet for most of that Venice audience, Dabbach’s name will have been completely unfamiliar.
Dabbach was no stranger to acting when he was cast in the movie. A graduate of the Baghdad College of Fine Arts, Dabbach had made a name for himself in his home country, but he had fled after Saddam Hussein put his son Uday in charge of the arts. “When I saw the situation in Iraq, I told my brother, who’s a director, ‘It’s not safe anymore,’” he remembers.
He moved, first, to Jordan, where he picked up some TV work, before being cast in Brian De Palma’s Redacted in 2007. A year later, he took perhaps his most memorable role to date, as ‘Black Suit Man’, an Iraqi civilian strapped into a bomb vest in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Desperate to be freed, his character approaches Jeremy Renner’s staff sergeant for help. Renner fears he might be a suicide bomber, but finally calls out for bolt cutters. He’s too late.
“There was no scene,” Dabbach says now, recalling his audition for the movie. “The director told me, ‘Can you do it, please?’” His performance at the audition was entirely improvised. So, too, was the final sequence, with Dabbach and Renner finding the tension that would prove to be one of the Oscar-winning picture’s best moments on set over four days. “It was a very, very simple scene. It was just the black suit man, but no lines. They told me, ‘Just say anything.’”
The Hurt Locker led to other opportunities, but work was hard to come by, even in Jordan. Dabbach also feared he would not be able to remain in the country and sought a better life for his wife and three children. “My kids were getting bigger and there were no jobs there,” he says. “I was worried they would send me back.” He turned to the UN for a letter of protection, which would bar him from being deported, and applied for refugee status in the United States.
When the Government approved his application and granted his family green cards, they directed Dabbach to Albuquerque, New Mexico. “If you know someone in the U.S. and you give their details, they will send you to live with them,” Dabbach explains. “But I did not know anyone.” It was an enormous adjustment from the life they had known, as they struggled to build credit and find an apartment. “My wife wanted to go back,” he says.
Dabbach started working as a dishwasher in a seniors’ center, struggling to pick up the English language and certain he would not find work as an actor. His boss offered him an opportunity to be cook, and he readily accepted. “It was hard work,” he says.
It was on a trip back to Jordan to bring his mother-in-law home that he received another call from Lara Atalla, the Jordan-based casting director who had given him his roles in Redacted and The Hurt Locker, with news of Mosul. “I thought, Why is she calling me after all these years?” They caught up, and Dabbach told her he was living in the U.S. now. “She asked, ‘Do you have a passport?’ I said, ‘Yes, why?’ She said, ‘There’s a movie and they want you to audition.’”
Dabbach was wary at first. He had picked up an agent in Albuquerque but was tired of being offered single-scene roles as terrorists or terror victims; the standard fare for Middle-Eastern actors. “Acting is my life. It is really my life. But to be an actor in one or two scenes, it’s not satisfying.”
He told Atalla he would meet with her in Jordan, and when he did, he learned that the part he was being offered was more substantial. He couldn’t believe it when she explained it would be a lead role in an American-produced feature film, shot entirely in Arabic. “I thought, Are they crazy or what? I wondered how they would feel about us acting, because they did not speak Arabic. But they cast me after the first audition. It never happens like that, you know? Because they didn’t know me.”
Carnahan recalls being surprised by what Dabbach brought to the audition. “He wasn’t how I initially saw the Colonel,” the director says. “I was looking at the Colonel as being more like Major Mezher Sadoon in the original article. He’s this big guy who has got this big kind of gut on him, and he’s been shot in the face, and he continues to fight. And then we saw Suhail’s audition that he did in Jordan, and in the two minutes I was watching his read, I thought, My God, that is a completely different version of this colonel, and it could be so much better for me. He’s just quietly in command.”
When the Russo Bros. handed the article on which Mosul is based to Carnahan, the writer and director had insisted that the film should be shot entirely in Arabic to do justice to the heroes in Iraq who fight back against terror in the absence of foreign forces. The cast came from across the Arab world but Dabbach, familiar with the particular Arabic dialect spoken in Iraq, became a mentor to his platoon offscreen as well as on, helping them master the accent.
Dabbach immediately understood the responsibility and the opportunity Mosul provided. “It’s a movie for Arabic people,” he says. “It might be the first movie in history [in the U.S.] that they did entirely in Arabic. I realized, it’s not for [the filmmakers], it’s for Arabic people. It’s important for them.”
It’s the “crime of world politics”, Carnahan says, that has allowed Dabbach to sail under the radar until now. “I think we would have heard of Suhail decades ago, if he hadn’t had to flee his home. I see something new every time I see that movie, and I’ve seen it maybe hundreds of times. Suhail set the tone.”
Adds Joe Russo: “Suhail’s story is just so fascinating to me, and we’re so proud to have him in the film. There are always stories that exist outside of the stories that we tell, and his story is every bit as powerful as any story I have ever heard.”