The Docs of War

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.

Also Noteworthy

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.

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