War on the ground

The latest in a stinging string of docs gives you what CNN won’t

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Despite YouTube, videoblogs and several 24-hour news channels, Americans are exposed to very little of the daily lives of the people we're supposedly helping. It's depressing that after more than three years of war and countless "imbedded" reports that it takes a handful of low-budget documentaries to give us our best view of what's really happening.

Filmmaker Laura Poitras traveled to Iraq, with the goal of filming everyday Iraqis. While seeking interviews at Abu Ghraib prison, she ran into Dr. Riyadh, a Baghdad physician and Sunni party candidate. At the time, the January 2005 elections were six months away, and Riyadh became the perfect subject for her man-on-the-street project. My Country, My Country presents the rarely seen viewpoint of regular Iraqi citizens coping with the pain, frustration and chaos of American occupation. Along with gripping documentaries like Gunner Palace, The War Tapes and The Ground Truth, it helps fill in the gigantic gaps left by corporate-owned mass media reporting.

Told mostly from the Iraqi perspective, Riyadh's story allows Poitras access to areas neglected by many Western journalists. From his overrun and undersupplied medical clinic to a meeting of Iraqi Islamic Party members, the doctor emerges as a dedicated and thoughtful man who is deeply critical of U.S. motives and intentions, yet firmly believes Sunnis must participate in the upcoming election. In particular, he wants to see his party involved in drafting the nation's first-ever constitution.

Without editorializing, Poitras paints a portrait of chaos, isolation and disorientation. There's no water or electricity, and gunfire and explosions echo down the streets. Residents hole up in tiny apartments and houses, watching news about their country, their city and even their own neighborhood on television. Still, the members of Riyadh's large family crack jokes and mercilessly tease each other (his wife and daughters are particularly caustic).

Poitras lets her subjects speak for themselves and the comments can be piercing. At Abu Ghraib, Riyadh listens to the complaints of an inmate who has been held for more than a year without a hearing. A jailed 9-year-old looks on as Riyahd gives a disgusted shrug and offers, "We're an occupied country with a puppet government. What do you expect?" In another scene, he asks a patient whom she'd vote for. She bluntly replies, "Saddam Hussein." Undaunted, Riyadh sees the election as an opportunity to chart his country's future. Even when his party decides to withdraw its candidates, he still nags friends and family to get to the polls.

In juxtaposition to Riyadh's story, Poitras spends time with American military and UN officials as they plan for the election and struggle to convince "Joe Iraqi" — as they put it — that his vote will be handled fairly and impartially. Vital to this plan is an Australian defense contractor, who will provide plainclothes (but heavily armed) security personnel. The strategy sessions and logistical hurdles are more engrossing than you might think, as an appearance of legitimacy becomes important to both the election's success and America's reputation.

Though its view of the war is critical, My Country, My Country never crosses into polemics. The film's sole fault is in not providing the audience with better political context. A brief primer on how the various parties — Kurds, Shia Muslims and Arab Sunnis — conflicted with one another would have given us a greater stake in the good doctor's mission as we journey down the road to Election Day.

If polls are to be believed, most Americans are sick of the war. They're sick of hearing about it, sick of paying for it and sick of arguing about it. Therefore it's understandable that movie audiences, by and large, would rather watch light-hearted romantic exchanges, naughty jokes or eye-popping special effects than political unrest half a world away.

But we should, at the very least, give up a few hours to better understand what we've gotten ourselves into. Well-made documentaries like My Country, My Country make it worth the investment.

 

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 5, and at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 6 and 7.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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