Undergoing boot camp to take on ISIS

French-Tunisian actor Adam Bessa, who plays a young member of a Swat team, says he got to handle a gun for the first time


In the war drama Mosul, French-Tunisian actor Adam Bessa is Kawa, a young cop recruited into a team of veteran fighters.

They operate in Mosul, Iraq's second most populous city, parts of which were seized by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014. While the Iraqi army fled, Kawa's new comrades stay behind, engaging ISIS in gruelling street-by-street, room-by-room gunfights.

The movie, showing in cinemas, is based on a 2017 New Yorker magazine article about the exploits of the Nineveh Swat team.

Living in France, Bessa, 29, was surrounded by news reports about the Iraq War, which began in 2003 following an invasion by a United States-led coalition.

"I grew up watching the news about the war on Arabic TV, on Al Jazeera and other channels. I talked to people who grew up in the Middle East, and to Iraqi friends," he says in audio clips in response to questions sent by The Straits Times.

Like what happened to many who follow the news about the war, the neverending nature of the conflict, its shifting battle lines and complex web of alliances between factions had become foggy in Bessa's mind.

Names like former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would fade, but the perpetual nature of the conflict created a revolving door of key characters who would appear "one after another and another and another", he says.

In the movie, his character, like much of the audience, is naive, so it is through his eyes that the world of the conflict is viewed and made understandable to an outsider.

Writer-director Matthew Carnahan, with the help of producers the Russo brothers (who directed Marvel superhero smash hits such as Captain America: Civil War, 2014; Avengers: Infinity War, 2018 and Avengers: Endgame, 2019), adapted the New Yorker article into the movie.

The film features only actors of Middle Eastern or North African descent, all speaking Arabic - a unique move given that action movies set in non-Western parts of the world tend to make every character speak English or feature a white English-speaking star in a lead role.

Carnahan told Bessa it was his job to show how someone in a new and often overwhelming situation would react - his curiosity, frustration and fear would mirror the audience's reaction, he says.

Bessa says: "He asked me to leave a lot of space for the audience - to let Kawa think, then let the audience see him thinking, so they can relate to his thinking process and be there in the moment with him."

The production team's insistence on authenticity did not stop with the language. Actors had to undergo a two-week boot camp in which they were trained in weapons and manoeuvres eight hours a day.

"I had never handled a gun in my life, so it was all new. There was so much to learn, psychologically and physically," Bessa says.

"I love learning new things, but what I loved most was seeing the actors transforming, turning scary and bada**."

• Mosul (NC16, 101 minutes) is showing in cinemas.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2020, with the headline 'Undergoing boot camp to take on ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe