It's a cruel irony that an attack on U.S. journalists nearly took out the director of the first Iraqi-made documentary since the war started.
On October 24, just before sunset, three explosions blasted the Palestine Hotel, a favorite of Baghdad's foreign press corps. Hayder Daffar, one of the Iraqi night cashiers who checks their luggage, is also the 33-year-old director of The Dreams of Sparrows (Harbinger Productions), one of a slew of recent documentaries on the war. When the bombs went off, Daffar had just started his shift and was writing an e-mail to me, responding to questions about his film.
Daffar survived with just a few cuts and bruises. Some 20 others, all Iraqis, were not so lucky.
Four hours later, on a scratchy cell phone connection, Daffar described the scene: 'After first explosion, I'm like, 'Oh my god. What happened?' I dropped to the ground and many people ran over me.' In the two minutes before the final bomb blast -- a cement truck packed with explosives -- he had crawled to a more protected spot. 'Now,' he added, 'just dust everywhere. There is a FOX News crew here shooting live.' One of the injured Iraqi journalists was a FOX employee. 'No one is allowed to leave or come.'
Daffar's phone call clarified the stakes of documentary filmmaking in Iraq. Most U.S. reporting on the war is indistinguishable from sports coverage. Troop movements, bombings, and body counts are the scores and box stats. Images are sanitized to present a war without blood, so as not to alienate viewers.
Documentary filmmakers, however, have the independence -- especially since the advent of cheap digital camcorders -- to go beyond the headlines and explore the war's complexities, contradictions, and human costs.
There's been a flood of such documentaries, but three of them stand out for their honest portrayals of the messy reality of life in a combat zone and its impact on soldiers and civilians on both sides.
The first and most powerful of these, Daffar's Dreams of Sparrows, focuses on the daily struggles of Iraq's civilians. The film achieves an intimacy that could only be captured by an Iraqi crew, unhindered by the barriers of language, culture, and distrust.
The film begins with quotidian slices of life -- children playing in the street, people eating, a donkey chewing on a tuft of grass. But the crew soon discovers that the politics of the war are everywhere: Baghdadis grumble about the occupation as they wait for hours in gas lines. Girls in an elementary school say they used to draw happy pictures but now draw scenes of war. Two artists display marble sculptures of the hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib. One cab driver calls Saddam Hussein a monster. Another calls him a hero. At a Palestinian refugee camp, a man asks, 'Mr. Bush, where is this freedom and democracy?' as he pretends to search high and low in his family's tent.
Everywhere Daffar turns his camera, people are eager to share their surprisingly diverse opinions. Most are glad Saddam is gone. Some even declare their love for George W. Bush. The film crew itself is divided, says its U.S.-based producer, Aaron Raskin. One crew member carries a photo of President Bush in his wallet. Yet virtually all condemn the ongoing occupation and wish the Americans would go home.
Daffar narrowly escaped the attack on the Palestine Hotel, but he is no stranger to violence. Four of his friends died during the year it took to make Dreams, including associate producer Sa'ad Fakher, whose car was caught in crossfire one night during a gun battle between U.S. troops and insurgents.
Two other notable war documentaries focus not on Iraqis but on U.S. troops. Occupation: Dreamland (Greenhouse Pictures) follows 82nd Airborne soldiers stationed at 'Dreamland,' a former Ba'ath Party resort on the outskirts of Fallujah. For six weeks in early 2004, Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, a pair of acclaimed young New York filmmakers, lived with the squad, following the soldiers on daily patrols as they tried in vain to win hearts and minds and quell the city's growing insurgent movement.
Despite their personal opposition to the war, Scott and Olds chose to make not an antiwar film, but an investigation in the empirical tradition. 'The goal was to draw as much raw experience as possible in order to add to the record,' says Scott.
The results are impressive. The soldiers talk candidly about their views both for and against the war, their impressions of Iraq, and their hopes for life after war. It's clear that few of them care much about the foreign policy that landed them in Iraq. Most just want to do their job and make it home alive.
Those who do make it home face another sort of trauma, which is the subject of The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends (The Ground Truth). The film asks how the act of killing affects soldiers. 'We train them to kill in our name and then we forget who they are,' says director Patricia Foulkrod, a veteran filmmaker who works with Operation Truth, a support group for soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress. The film gives voice to these forgotten veterans, many of whose lives have been permanently shattered. Their stories and interviews reveal that even those who killed in self-defense are haunted by shame and guilt.
Foulkrod hopes to launch a series of house parties across the country in early 2006, using the film as a catalyst for a national conversation about our collective responsibility to care for the soldiers who are sent abroad to kill.
All three films present a realistic portrayal of complex situations and people. Rather than taking a clear stance on the war, they telegraph diverse, nuanced beliefs. Ironically enough, their focus on the war's 'gray area' makes them 'unique and refreshing for audiences, but difficult to market,' says Dreams' Raskin, who says that MoveOn.org 'shied away from sponsorship' because a crew member expresses pro-Bush sentiments early in the film.
Exploring that gray area is something this country desperately needs. These three films speak to people on all sides of the war debate and could be a powerful foundation for conversations across ideological lines -- conversations that are essential if we are to heal the wounds that war inflicts on all of us.
The Dreams of Sparrows is available on DVD from the iraqEYE Group, www.iraqeye.org. Occupation: Dreamland is scheduled for broadcast on the Sundance Channel in late February, followed by a March DVD release. For more information, see www.occupationdreamland.com. For availability of The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends, check www.thegroundtruth.org.
More War Movies
Cinema Libre Studio, which produces and distributes independent progressive political films, has all but cornered the market on Iraq docs. Current offerings include:
Soldiers Pay (Doc Workers)
A half-hour documentary by director David O. Russell exploring a wide range of reasons for the war and its impact on all involved. Originally meant to run in theaters before each showing of his film Three Kings during a fall 2004 re-release, the film was pulled from theaters when it was deemed too political for an election year.
Voices in Wartime (Voices in Wartime)
An inspiring exploration of war through the eyes of poets. Includes interviews with Poets Against the War founder Sam Hamill, West Point superintendent Lt. Gen. William Lennox (who has a Ph.D. in war poetry), and many others. A companion book and Web site (www.voicesinwartime.org) contain a wealth of poetry and prose, as well as study guides.
Embedded Live (Liberation Pictures)
A video version of Tim Robbins' play by the same name, exploring the start of the Iraq war and the government's efforts to control the reporters whocovered it.
Mission Accomplished (Cinema Libre)
The gripping video diary of BBC journalist Sean Langan's travels in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle. Features a wide range of interviews: U.S. Army soldiers and medics, insurgent fighters, even an ex-inmate of Abu Ghraib, who described abuses months before the world would learn of them.
For more on these and other Cinema Libre Studio releases, visit www.cinemalibrestudio.com.
Forthcoming in 2006
I Know I'm Not Alone (Stay Human Films)
Hip-hop artist and activist Michael Franti travels through war zones inIraq, Israel, and Palestine. See www.iknowimnotalone.com.
War in Iraq
PBS' portal to the Web sites of all 13 of its Frontline documentaries about Saddam Hussein and the Iraq war. Includes streaming video of every show. www.pbs.org/frontline/saddam/
Caught in the Crossfire: The Untold Story of
Falluja (Conception Media)
Short (18 minutes) film featuring powerful footage of Iraqi civilians and the devastation of Falluja after the November 2004 American siege laid waste to the city. For more info, see www.conceptionmedia.net.