Earlier this year, three filmmakers distributed 150 digital video cameras to people throughout Iraq and encouraged them to film and talk about post-Saddam life there. The idea was that a close-up look at things from ground level would be a more realistic depiction of what’s going on there than what we get from the American media. This sounds reasonable on the face of it, but when you end up with more than 400 hours of footage, which is then edited down to an 80-minute feature, you have to wonder if the material has been shaped to make a specific point. It seems so in Voices of Iraq, the message being that you shouldn’t despair, and things aren’t as bad as you’ve been told.
Thus we’re given the non-revelations that now that Saddam is gone, conditions are, on balance, better; that many people are glad he’s gone; that terrorists are causing much of the problems; that there are still unrehabilitated Saddam supporters; and that the common folk who do admit to missing the old days are worried about things like lack of security, or electricity and water. All this one can get from reading the newspapers. But for some people, nothing short of war boosterism will make the American press seem “fair and balanced,” and so several right-wing Web sites are championing this film as bringing to light the truths buried or ignored by the “liberal media.”
There are moments when the film does seem to be coming from a particular ideological place. During an anti-American protest, we’re told via captions that the protesters waited for the media to show up and then disbanded once the media left, as though this were something sinister — but what’s the point of protesting if nobody sees it? Then there are a few talking heads who sound like they’ve been watching too much Fox News: One man says that the Abu Ghraib prisoners were “Saddam’s henchmen” and the same people who tortured him, suggesting they got what they deserved (even though it’s been reported that many if not most of the prisoners were people who’d been caught in sweeping arrests and not yet accused of anything). Another man says al Qaeda members were coddled by Saddam and grew rich under his regime — which doesn’t square with the known hostility between the religious terrorists and the secular dictator.
Despite all this, it’s an interesting film, and though the filmmakers have an agenda, they manage to keep it in check for long stretches. The depictions of life during wartime, of some peoples’ perseverance and even optimism in dire circumstances, are encouraging, even inspiring at times. However, there’s a bit toward end where a headline from The Washington Post reading “Time to Get Out of the Quagmire in Iraq” is superimposed over a scene of Iraqis enjoying themselves at an amusement park. It’s such a tacky bit of agitprop that one imagines it would make even Michael Moore blush. The Iraq situation can’t be coarsened into any one simple message, since it involves too many overlapping states of misery and well-being. Things are bad in Iraq, though they may get better; things are better, though they could get worse.
In Arabic, English and Kurdish with English subtitles. Showing at the Birmingham 8 Theatre, 211 S. Woodward, Birmingham; 248-644-3256.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].