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Saturday, October 16, 2004

 

battleground


i went to a screening of a documentary called "battleground: 21 days on the empire's edge" last night as part of CIFF. i have to say that my fundamental perception of an aspect of a situation hasn't been changed so radically so rapidly by a piece of media perhaps ever. "battleground" is testimony to just how heavily propagandized we are about the situation on the ground in iraq.

the film was shot by two guys working for an agitation outfit known as "guerilla news network" as part of a book deal they had with penguin (the book, "true lies" is out now). the idea was to spend three weeks in the second half of 2003 in iraq, find out what they could outside of any organization -- just see what happened seems to have been their idealistic plan -- and film it on a 24p.

stephen marshall, director/cinematographer/auteur for the film, was there to present it and Q&A with us, a lot of 40 or so. he and we got a lot more question time that we thought -- maybe an hour -- because of projection problems that stopped the film for repairs. (lucky us, it turned out.)

there's some degree of spoilers within -- if you think you'll see the film (please do!) you may want to skip all after this.

he explained that he had gone to iraq an antiwar radical, ready to tear it all down -- and came home utterly changed. on the plane to amman, he met an iraqi-american named frank, who had fled iraq in the 1990s as a 16-year-old after being caught as an insurgent, shot (in the back, while hanging from his feet) and left for dead by the iraqi government. they traveled over the border with frank, and followed him (they were free to, having no plan) through parts of his homecoming. the film also includes comments from a young american woman who worked as a producer for al-jazeera in iraq before it was shut down by the CPA, candid footage taken with united states army officers and soldiers in meetings and on patrol, explorations of radioactivity as a result of DU ammunition use -- and, most importantly, many conversations with ordinary iraqis of all types and kinds.

from early on, the picture of the american war and occupation sprang to life in some manifestation of its full complexity. instantaneously, my perception of what iraq is basically like changed -- it is essentially peaceful. people walk the streets and laugh. children play. there is no constant gunfire, no sound of war -- danger was very rare, says marshall. they went along on a "presence patrol" through samarra (i think) in the sunni triangle (a mission whose object is to be shot at) and could not find anyone to fire at them, though they sometimes do.

the press obviously don't give that impression in america -- and that is a result, it turns out, of none of them leaving their hotels in downtown baghdad. they get rumors and reports from outside, talk amongst themselves, and phone it in as news. the only reports they get are of gunfire -- so that's the news.

most powerful for me was the unguarded interviews with people on the street -- some friends, some frank's relation, some people stuck in traffic jams, some men in cafes, some kids selling gas (20L = $1) to make a buck. these people are profoundly happy that saddam is gone, and the vast majority have no fundamental problem with the american invasion itself. that basic fact amazed me.

but it is also much more complex than that. many people attempted to explain for the camera the humiliations that they've suffered as a part of the invasion -- which, they explained, has nothing to do with saddam. most of these people have no desire to be americans or be americanized, and balance the immense good that has come of the war against the dislocation and frustration and depression that came with sweeping away of a period and paradigm of iraqi culture. marshall explained that what often enrages iraqis most is not the american army -- though many hate them -- but the halliburtons, the exposed and obvious american corporate interests which have instantly come to dominate the iraqi economy. many of them want some kind of capitalism; many (far more, i think, including many who want it) fear it terribly as a one-way avenue to americanization. many expressed some desire for a law derived of the sharia in an effort to retain iraqi ways and traditions.

one american commander expresses (and one must remember, all of this was shot nearly a year ago) that a broad-based insurgency is not really happening -- the people, he says, are on the american side. most were at least tolerant, it seemed, and indeed the film nowhere indicates a hot guerilla war underway. but the interviews painted a more nuanced picture -- one if increasing impatience and a certain restlessness. it was said that many of the iraqis, even as american ground forces rolled up for the first time, surrounded the tanks cheering -- and simultaneously asking when the water and electricity will be turned back on. this was all filmed at a point some 3-4 months after the invasion. it's now been over 15 months, and basic utilities are still sporadic. there was plainly a gradation in antipathy for the occupation that, in time and with cause, would slip into more and more support for the resistance -- many iraqis openly praised the resistance as patriots fighting for their people and culture. in response to my question, marshall admitted that he wished sometimes that he could ask all his questions again now.

against that, one had to balance the films most powerful scenes -- those of frank finding his family and coming home. seeing his now-widowed mother for the first time in 13 years. watching his cousin, an imam, come to be interviewed and having frank ask him questions about his old relatives who fought saddam -- until the smile of recognition suddenly leapt to his face. watching his brother convulse in tears, pick up an ak-47, fire off several rounds to call his neighbors to celebration. those scenes are being replayed thousands of times as the exiles of saddam's despotism return home. there is an incontrovertible good within all of this. marshall stated pointedly that, for every evil, the average iraqi saw a hundred good things. virtually all were truly grateful to be rid of saddam.

there's much more to the film, and more to marshall's generous comments -- and i wish i could convey the experience of the evening to everyone. go see it. while the film hasn't made me pro-war -- because it wasn't designed to address the american cost-benefit analysis, which remains the foundation of my opposition -- it enlightened me immensely about the thoughts and opinions of normal iraqis, and gave me reason for optimism. at least at that point in time, things in iraq were not nearly so awful for them as i had feared.


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