Friday, August 18, 2006
Movie Review: My Country, My Country
Maybe you should consider dropping eight bucks on a ticket to get a feel for what some of the folks who live in Baghdad are really like, and what they're saying about us.
You know you're not in Kansas anymore when, as election day dawns, explosions rock the neighborhood; since this is nothing unusual, you continue preparing breakfast.
That is the scenario explored in My Country, My Country, a 90-minute film by documentarist Laura Poitras which chronicles events leading up to the January 2005 Iraqi national elections as seen through the eyes of Dr. Riyadh (a Sunni Muslim physician) and his family. The film is a documentary in its truest form, employing no voice-over narration (as in typical episodes of Frontline), but relying entirely on real-time events, conversations and on-camera interviews to tell the story.
Poitras first encounters Dr. Riyadh, who treats patients in a local clinic and is something of a community leader in his corner of Baghdad, when she films him and other local dignitaries during an inspection tour of Abu Ghraib prison. Observed closely by armed U.S. soldiers, the doctor converses with detainees across a chain-link fence; they yell complaints at him, such as "I've been here for a year and two months without any trial!” to which he replies: "We are an occupied country with a puppet government - what do you expect?" Dr. Riyadh, we come to learn, is a realist and something of a fatalist, but he's doing all he can to make an intolerable situation livable for his family, friends and countrymen. It comes as no surprise when he announces his candidacy for a seat on the new governing council.
Filmmaker Poitras and crew are invited into the home and personal lives of Riyadh and his family, and over the span of the next six months (beginning in July of 2004 and ending shortly after the elections that next January) we become familiar with their personalities and daily routine. Two years after the war has been declared "over", their apartment has no electricity; as we discover later, even the polling place visited by the camera crew relies on oil lamps and candles for early-morning illumination.
Poitras and her crew are granted behind-the-scenes access to the election preparations. It's a troubling scenario, because we are quickly made to understand that the driving force behind the elections, and the lion’s share of their planning and execution, are being carried out by the U.S. and their U.N. electoral affiliates; the Iraqis have almost nothing to do with the process until the point where the carefully-managed supply of blank ballots enters the polling places, when the U.S. uniformed presence disappears simultaneous with the arrival of the international news media sent to cover the event. But all that comes later.
Prior to the election we become acquainted with the Australian private contractor who has been hired (it's not clear by whom) to provide security for the transportation and handling of the ballots. While he refers to his team as "election security", to all appearances these blokes are nothing more than Kalashnikov-toting plainclothes mercs who might have just ambled off the set of The Dogs of War. When their chief learns that 20 more operational groups are going to be needed to complete the mission (er, I mean "fulfill the terms of the contract"), he goes arms shopping at the home of a local dealer (who we see during the filmed transaction only from behind). The prices of AKs and RPGs are quickly settled upon - there's a vast supply at hand, and they're dirt cheap - and so the boys adjourn to Kurdistan to test fire the weapons (er, I mean "receive shipment of the election security supplies").
It is among the Kurds of northern Iraq, who had little love for Saddam (as a result if his attempting to wipe them out, one presumes), that we hear for the first time some sincerely positive comments in regard to U.S. intervention in the region. Not only do they demonize Saddam, neither are they particularly fond of their fellow Iraqis: as a Kurdish truck driver comments while hauling weapons for the Aussies, "Arabs are criminals; many of them are murderers." Ouch. Good thing they've got all those guns....
Meanwhile, back in Baghdad, Dr. Riyadh's candidacy for the national assembly is in jeopardy because the group he represents - the Iraqi Islamic Party - is debating whether they will boycott what they consider to be a U.S.-mandated and therefore invalid election. Riyadh argues the reality of the situation (which is that, if they don't participate, they will have no representation), but the majority of party members disagrees with his acceptance of the status quo and overrules him. Having observed the recent U.S. attack on Fallujah in which mosques were destroyed and thousands of Iraqis were killed, their taste for reconciliation and participation in U.S.-sponsored events has been soured.
Though he now represents a bona fide lost cause, Riyadh continues to encourage acquaintances and family members to get out and vote. At one point he asks a middle-aged female patient who she plans on voting for in the election, and she snaps, "Saddam Hussein." Doc Riyadh and the woman share a hearty laugh over this one.
As you may or may not recall, the election of representatives to the 275-member Iraqi National Assembly went off without spectacular incident (although there were 44 deaths reported around polling stations). Two young women in Dr. Riyadh's household got out to vote, and returned sporting fingers purpled by indelible ink - amazingly, someone on the planning commission decided this would be a great way to prevent multiple voting, but from a dumb movie reviewer's point of view this sounds like: 1.) a great way for insurgents to single out voters later for bloody retribution, and 2.) the Mark of the Beast. And I'm not the only one indulging in this kind of paranoia: as the women leave the house to vote, one of the non-voting family members says, "I wonder if someone is filming voters so they can kill them later?" And he's not kidding.
Regardless of one's politics or ideology, seeing this film might not be a bad idea. After all, our nation's leadership feels that the Iraqi people are important enough to commit billions of dollars (the figure currently stands in the $307 billion range) and thousands of American lives (THAT figure stands at 2,600 as I complete this review, with 4 more pending confirmation) to the betterment of their situation. Maybe you should consider dropping eight bucks on a ticket to get a feel for what some of the folks who live in Baghdad are really like, and what they're saying about us. Just a suggestion.
STRIKING IMAGE: the Riyadh household matriarch carrying on swatting flies while, just outside, the sound of automatic weapons fire rattles up and down the street.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT/PARTING STATEMENT FROM DR. RIYADH: "We are a suicidal people; it's our destiny."
A FINAL EDITORIAL NOTE: It should be pointed out that My Country, My Country is entirely a U.S. of A. production, created by an American filmmaker and funded by fine American organizations, such as The Sundance Institute Documentary Fund and P.O.V./American Documentary, Inc. Which kind of makes me proud to be an American.