Iraq on the Big Screen

Michael Atkinson

Who should define what a war is about”? By any ethical standard, that right should fall to the besieged – those who were waged upon, the people with the most corpses and the least to gain from combat.

Of course, in reality, an armed conflict’s character is limned by the powerful, in whose mitts the media will, as we all know, contort, grind and dilute matters of truth to fit the message of the campaign.

The cold facts about the Iraq ordeal – from lies and sword-rattling to tens of thousands of murdered civilians and an increasingly dedicated insurgence” (a misapplied word carefully chosen by the think tanks, and reflexively used by nearly every public voice) – are visible from a modest height. But that’s not how media narratives would have us view this particular shitstorm. Instead, they frame the discussion around an array of other, smaller, more televisual issues: Are the U.S. soldiers being sufficiently armed, and adequately medicated? Are U.S. soldiers able to adjust to civilian life once they get home? How do U.S. soldiers feel” about, well, everything?

TV being a crater, independent documentaries are sometimes our most hopeful opportunity for actually jamming our feet into those on-the-ground boots we’re always hearing about. But even this avenue, in even this stage of the Bush Administration’s dying power, is subject to ideological market controls. Take three new films, each of them shot in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, amidst the U.S.-led force’s efforts to simply deal with a native resistance that will not quit: Sean McAllister’s The Liberace of Baghdad (2005), Laura Poitras’s My Country, My Country (2006), and Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes (2006).

While all three offer up an understanding of life in that war zone we’ll never get from embedded network telejournalists, the differences between the first two and the last are significant: Whereas McAllister’s and Poitras’s first-person films are intimate with Iraqi civilians and, necessarily therefore, scaldingly anti-occupation, Scranton’s audience-pleaser is assembled from footage soldiers shot themselves. The War Tapes is sometimes mordant and sometimes frightening, but it is only and wholly concerned with fresh-faced American operators among the inexplicably irate Arabs, who are merely scenery. Predictably, of the three movies, only Scranton’s is winning film festival awards and gathering steam toward a probable theatrical release in this country.

Not that urban theaters have hurt for progressive documentaries in the last six years, but voicing contempt for the Bush Administration is a safe haven compared to prioritizing Iraqi citizens over the invading American hordes. MacAllister’s remarkable film captures the affable BBC filmmaker’s bonding friendship with Samir Peter, a beloved, sophisticated Iraqi concert pianist living now in a Baghdad hotel basement and playing show tunes in the heavily guarded lobby for foreign journalists. Articulate, infectiously gregarious and ferociously unhealthy, Peter is every doc-maker’s dream subject; he takes McAllister for savvy daytrips through the city that are rarely secure and frequently terrifying. The occupation is seen from the inside, as explosions shake kitchen windows and even cultured families become conscientious about stocking their home with defensive firearms.

Poitras’s film is even meatier – without inserting herself into the frame, she makes the definitive nonfiction film about the war, always managing to be where platoons of U.S. reporters are afraid to go. She follows a Sunni activist-doctor around the Sunni Triangle in the year leading up to the 2005 elections, even accompanying him to the fences around Abu Ghraib: We’re an occupied country with a puppet government,” Dr. Riyadh says to the pleading prisoners, what do you expect?” Riding with the Kurds, listening to security contractors try to make sense out of chaos, sitting in Sunni living rooms as shells fall in the street – Poitras packs a month’s worth of visual experience into 90 minutes.

The War Tapes, which has already reaped a trophy at the 9/11-conscious Tribeca Film Festival, is a more Spielbergian experience – fiercely manipulative, ragingly effective but, in the end, reassuring. The indie equivalent of a yellow ribbon magnet, the film intercuts the soldiers’ digital footage with interviews with their families waiting for their return. You could be swept away by the working-class goodness and homespun heroism on display if you allow yourself. But your bubble ought to be tight, so as to avoid consideration, at least, of the mountains of Arab dead, and the mercenary self-regard of the participants, who care, as we’re meant to, only about getting home, not about where they’ve been, what they’ve done or why. 

Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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