The Docs of War

Three new films show the human impact of the war in Iraq

| January / February 2006

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.