A Dubious Doc

Eartha Melzer

Just before the elec­tion, a film about Iraq hit art house the­aters around the coun­try. Voic­es of Iraq claimed to be a ground­break­ing film in which 150 DV cam­eras [are] dis­trib­uted across Iraq for the Iraqi peo­ple to show the world who they are and what Iraq will be.”

The results? Peo­ple seem hap­py that Sad­dam is gone and opti­mistic that, if the Unit­ed States stays in Iraq, democ­ra­cy will pre­vail. They seem unafraid of bombs going off near­by. Peo­ple say Sad­dam fund­ed al Qae­da. For­mer Iraqi polit­i­cal pris­on­ers are shown laugh­ing off the sto­ries of pris­on­er abuse at Abu Ghraib — what Arab man wouldn’t want a female Amer­i­can sol­dier to play with his penis?

The film begins with shaky hand­held footage but the pro­duc­tion val­ues increase dra­mat­i­cal­ly as talk turns to the hor­rors per­pe­trat­ed by Sad­dam Hus­sein — extend­ed sequences of beat­ings and dis­mem­ber­ment obvi­ous­ly shot using a tri­pod not sup­plied by the pro­duc­ers of this film.

So how was this film made? 

Voic­es of Iraq was pro­mot­ed as a project in which thou­sands of ordi­nary Iraqis become film­mak­ers” as the cam­eras are passed hand to hand and — amaz­ing­ly — all returned to the film­mak­ers. But Archie Drury, the Gulf War vet and actor who went to Iraq with the cam­eras, told me that he actu­al­ly shot some of the footage himself.

Drury also said that the Iraq Foun­da­tion was extreme­ly help­ful” to him as he tried to fig­ure out how to get around and who to give the cam­eras to. The foun­da­tion also sup­plied the tor­ture footage. 

The Iraq Foun­da­tion, based in Wash­ing­ton, is fund­ed by the State Depart­ment and the Nation­al Endow­ment for Democracy.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, Drury got uncom­mon access to Iraqis and Iraqi lead­ers favored by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. Among the nota­bles inter­viewed, but not iden­ti­fied, is Sharif Ali, the cousin of Iraq’s last king. Drury also inter­viewed a Sheik Aku Bezei, a man he says was the most pow­er­ful trib­al leader in Fal­lu­jah. On Novem­ber 6, a Sheik Bezei was killed for col­lab­o­rat­ing with Amer­i­can forces.

Drury says that his com­mand­ing gen­er­al from Desert Storm put him in touch with Gen­er­al Mat­tis, fight­ing in the Sun­ni Tri­an­gle, and Gen­er­al Amos of the Air Wing, and that he exchanged e‑mails with these gen­er­als as he planned his trip. 

In an inter­view in Movie Mak­er mag­a­zine, anoth­er of the film’s pro­duc­ers, Mar­tin Kun­nert, said: Get­ting a the­atri­cal release for a doc­u­men­tary film is still rare. We lucked out in that our dis­trib­u­tor, Mag­no­lia Pic­tures, [which also put out Con­trol Room and Cap­tur­ing the Fried­mans] was eager to get the film in the­aters before the pres­i­den­tial election.”

A call to Mag­no­lia Pic­tures in New York was answered by a man who, low­er­ing his voice when asked about Voic­es of Iraq, whis­pered, Nobody here want­ed to release this and we didn’t do any of the pro­mo­tion on it. [Mark] Cuban steam­rolled us on this.” (Cuban owns Mag­no­lia Pic­tures, the Dal­las Mav­er­icks and much more.)

Jeff Riechert, the Mag­no­lia Pic­tures con­tact for Voic­es of Iraq, said that while his com­pa­ny is tech­ni­cal­ly dis­trib­ut­ing the film, Man­ning, Sel­vage & Lee (MS&L) is coor­di­nat­ing the pub­lic­i­ty. MS&L has the pub­lic affairs con­tract for the U.S. Army. The firm’s revamp of the Army’s image with the real­i­ty TV-style Army of One” ad cam­paign is cred­it­ed with enabling the Army to meet its recruit­ing goals after a long slump. Accord­ing to MS&L Man­ag­ing Direc­tor Joe Glea­son, he and his col­leagues also deliv­er key tar­get­ed mes­sages about the war in Iraq to spe­cif­ic constituencies.

Was the left-lean­ing art house crowd one of those con­stituen­cies? Is the gov­ern­ment hir­ing doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers to pro­pa­gan­dize the U.S. population?

Nobody involved with the film is will­ing to say who ini­tial­ly put up the mon­ey for the film or how they end­ed up rep­re­sent­ed by the Army’s PR firm.

On Novem­ber 13, as Marines stormed Fal­lu­jah, the Marines’ Birth­day Ball in San Fran­cis­co hon­ored Drury for his work on Voic­es of Iraq, for going back and liv­ing up to the stan­dard of a Marine.” 

Eartha Melz­er is a writer and video­g­ra­ph­er in Washington.
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