Documentary Review: Only the Dead

Former Time and CNN correspondent Michael Ware and two-time Oscar winning film maker Bill Guttentag have teamed up for new documentary. Bobby Townsend could barely watch: 

In simple terms, documentary Only The Dead, charts the origins of the Islamic State, but it does so much more than that. Accumulated over seven years on assignment, the film drags its viewers into the pit of hell that is war. 

Ware is in Iraq, carrying out his duties as a war correspondent just as the 2003 invasion begins. But after the supposed ‘victory’ by allied troops, he remains there and sees the true aftermath. When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the vicious Al Qaeda leader who has been compiling video footage of the most awful atrocities – finally wants it to go public, who does he give it to? Ware. This triggers the journalist’s journey deeper and deeper into his own personal obsession with Zarqawi. It will take him to the darkest places.

This documentary is visceral, tense, gripping and often horrific. If you don’t think you can handle beheadings, gunpoint executions, bombings and death, then you are going to struggle to make it through the 80 minutes running time. It is an unquestionably tough watch. I spent a lot of time looking at the wall rather than at the screen. At its best though, this fascinating docco puts you right in the frontline of war. The deadly situations that these American kid soldiers (and they are kids) are put into is shocking, as is a moment towards the end of the documentary that Ware calls his darkest, involving a wounded insurgent. Again, it’s pretty much impossible to watch and certain images will stay with you for a very long time after you leave the screening.

As a documentary about the birth of the Islamic State, this is a fascinating film. As an insight into the sheer horror, misery, heartbreak and pointlessness of war, this is about as good as it gets. And as a study into the blackening of the soul that being in the midst of conflict causes, Ware and Guttentag have done a masterful job. Just don’t expect to come away from the cinema feeling anything other than completely depressed about this world in which we live.

There are special screenings of Only The Dead across Australia from OCTOBER 20, 2015

Michael Ware will present the special event screenings below, followed by a Q&A Session:

ADELAIDE: 4:30pm, Tuesday 20th October – Palace Nova Eastend, Adelaide Film Festival
MELBOURNE: 7pm, Friday 23rd & 3pm, Saturday 24th October – Cinema Nova Carlton
SYDNEY: 6pm, Sunday 25th October – Palace Verona
BRISBANE: 6:30pm, Monday 26th October – Palace Centro

Following the special event screenings ONLY THE DEAD will be released nationally through the new cinema-on-demand platform Fan-Force. Fan-Force allows the public, groups or organisations – no matter where they are based – the opportunity to see the film in their local cinema, at any date of their choosing. More info at:

bobby townsend


Review by Bobby Townsend.