My Country, My Country

Tonight I caught a quite fantastic documentary at the Edinburgh Film Festival, My Country, My Country by Laura Poitras. Laura spent eight months in Iraq, filming on her own without a crew, exploring the spiralling events in the lead up to the election. While she took in the US military and some of the private contractors (including a great bunch of Australians) the main part of the film follows Dr Riyadh who she met while filming around the notorious Abu Ghraib where American saved prisoners from the tortures and deprivations of the Saddam regime by, er, torturing them…

Dr Riyadh allowed Laura to follow him around, even as far as staying at his home with his wife and children. As well as working as a doctor in a neighbourhood desperately in need of such help he was involved in politics, running for a seat in the new government at one point before his Sunni party decided to boycott the elections. Being with Riyadh obviously opened doors for Laura, as he said herself in a Q&A after the screening, so we get to see a fair bit of life and politics in the divided city of Baghdad (to think one of the world’s most ancient cities, one of the cradles of civilisation itself is so reduced).

More than this though, we get to see family life – some is frighteningly bizarre as we see one woman trying to swat an irritating fly while explosions and machine gun fire crackle loudly outside. Other parts would be recognisable in any nation, such as the teen daughter proclaiming loudly that she voted for her dad in the election and since she did shouldn’t she get some kickback in the pocket money department? Dr Riyadh himself came across as that rare thing, a decent man in a bad situation, trying to make things better but with the weight of event wearing him down.

Of course, Laura, Riyadh and his family were taking a huge risk, having an American staying in his home in a Sunni region of Baghdad. And even daring to take part in the election could be enough to get him killed – many involved, from would-be politicians to ordinary workers simply handing out the registration papers were targeted for murder. In fact the film can’t be shown in Iraq right now as Laura has talked with the doctor and frankly it is too damned dangerous and could get someone killed. When asked how dangerous it was for her personally she didn’t downplay the dangers but did point out that unlike most of the people she was filming she could leave at any point.

I was deeply impressed with My Country, My Country; events in Iraq are in danger of becoming a mix of statistics (xxx civilians killed in bombing today, xxx soldiers now died) and politicians who talk only in grand, strategic terms of great plans and schemes. Neither of these addresses the fact that these events are happening to actual people. Laura’s work takes its place alongside blogs like Baghdad Burning, (Riverbend’s last blog post there about more people being forced out of Baghdad by the Madhi army is simply terrifying and leaves me wondering how Dr Riyadh and his family are coping) or the webcomic Shooting War (written by Anthony Lappe who has reported from there) as part of a growing amount of different media which is putting a more personal face on what is happening, which is a good thing in my book. It is too damned easy to become inured to events when mostly all we hear are general statistics and political rhetoric.

It is also worth bearing in mind how instrumental the media coverage of the Vietnam War was in changing the US public opinion and ultimately the government’s policy. I also found a section where a US officer is talking about making the election a success but not being bothered about certain sections of Iraq, such as Fallujah, which are unlikely to be US friendly, not really having a chance to be in on the election to be interesting; it made me think immediately of the tactical way in which entire sections of the electorate in Florida were systematically denied their chance to vote as Dubyah’s brother did everything he could to fix it for his little bro to win the election (and even then it didn’t work, Fox had to sort it all out for them).

Dr Riyadh is on a CIA list of potential troublemakers they would like to arrest, because he dares to question and to use the democratic process of debate which the US Coalition purports to be there to give to Iraq; gives you a good grasp of the mindset of Coalition intelligence, where violent terrorists are classed as a similar risk to a family doctor who dares to speak out and seems exactly the sort of decent man they should be embracing and the sort the country desperately needs. These are the same intelligence communities which keep demanding more powers and less oversight to spy not only on foreign terrorists but on our own citizens. Hmm. I highly recommend catching this documentary if you can – it is strong stuff but fascinating and very human.

As a final recommendation, Laura told the audience that she had no problems from the authorities while shooting the work, but since completing it and going home to New York she has found herself placed on the suspected traveller list by the US Homeland Security (“War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength”) which means each time she flies now they have to stop her, phone the Homeland Gestapo mob and get clearance before she can board a plane. Yes folks, last week books were dangerous, this week making a documentary film is; so glad we are fighting to preserve our democratic freedoms. Frankly I think that is a blood fine endorsement of Laura and her film. A shame neither Tony Blair nor Dubyah is likely to sit down and watch this.