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Iraq's Insurgents Are Ordinary People

A new film delves inside Iraqis' reasons for getting involved in the violent resistance movement.
 
 
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Molly Bingham says the information most people in America are getting about the insurgents who oppose the U.S. backed occupation of Iraq is very different from what she found when she talked with those insurgents.

"There are two impressions we seem to have here," Bingham said. "The first one is the majority of violence is against civilians, and they are on the brink of a huge civil war, and the Sunnis and Shias hate each other, and the Americans are standing between these two groups that are just going to kill each other. The next one is that the people fighting against us are some radical fringe group who can be isolated and killed."

After 10 months of interviewing insurgents, Bingham, an American photojournalist, and Steve Connors, a British photojournalist and former soldier, found that these impressions aren't true. The insurgency is mostly ordinary Iraqis. Doing the interviews for their documentary Meeting Resistance , Bingham says they tried to approach the subject with no preconceptions.

"We've both been conflict journalists for our careers," she said. "We didn't go in with any sense of what we were going to find. If we'd found this is Al Qaeda and teenage thugs, that's what film would be about. We weren't trying to prove anything -- that's who they are."

What Connors and Bingham discovered has been corroborated by Department of Defense reports, which found that over 70 percent of the attacks in Iraq from 2004 to 2007 targeted U.S.-led coalition forces, and by BBC/ABC polls, which said all the Iraqis polled disapprove of attacks on civilians, but the majority approve of attacks on the U.S. troops.

"What the U.S. is facing in Iraq is highly nationalistic," Connors said. "It's not an issue of outside forces coming in to try and screw up an American project."

Bingham and Connors came up with the idea for Meeting Resistance while they were working in Baghdad as freelance photojournalists in 2003. There were some small-scale attacks against the coalition forces, and Bingham and Connors wanted to know who was behind them. Originally they planned to travel around the country for three weeks, interviewing Iraqis who were fighting against the Americans, and then spend three weeks interviewing people in the American military to find out who they thought was attacking them.

That plan changed when Bingham, while working on a story about the last place Saddam Hussein had been seen, got into a conversation with a man in his late 40s who told her translator he was in the resistance. When Connors and Bingham decided to make the movie, they went looking for him. That man, who agreed to be interviewed and tell his story, is identified in the film as "The Teacher." While talking with him, they met another character in the movie, "The Traveler." Meeting these two took them quickly inside the story of who the anti-Americans were and the filmmakers ended up spending 10 months, mostly in the Adhamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad, hanging out in tea shops and looking for people willing to talk.

Bingham and Connors interviewed 45 people over that time, six of them multiple times. There are eight people in the film, identified by generic titles ("The Wife," "The Iman," etc.). Their faces are obscured or are shown off camera so we only see their hands holding burning cigarettes, cups of tea or prayer beads. An exception is "The Professor," a lecturer in political science at Baghdad University, who is shown sitting at a desk in front of a map of the world, talking about resistance movements.

Bingham says that during the first interviews with the subjects, she and Connors had a long list of questions about their background, upbringing, education and reasons for getting involved in the violent resistance movement -- questions to try to get at who these people were.

"The Wife" talks about how happy she is to bring messages and weapons for the resistance and how she yearns to be a martyr; "The Iman," who was jailed under Hussein, denies any direct involvement with the movement but says he has to provide spiritual guidance to his congregation; and "The Traveler" talks about fighting with the Palestinians for 20 years and sharing his expertise with the anti-American violent resistance. "The Teacher" says his group formed spontaneously: "They are engineers, officers, teachers, normal people, cultured people. Some have a medium level of education, and some have higher," he says, adding that before the occupation, he didn't pray or go to the mosque.

"The Warrior," a former special-forces officer, was put in jail and tortured under Hussein's regime after surviving a suicide mission to put down a Shia insurrection. He refused to join the military after he was released -- until he saw the Americans in his country. "When they invaded Iraq, they subjugated me, they subjugated my sister, they subjugated my mother, subjugated my honor, my homeland," he says. "Every time I saw them, I felt pain."

Bingham and Connors know that many of the characters don't come across as particularly sympathetic. But they say it's important to hear the insurgents' stories. Meeting Resistance has been screened at various theaters, film festivals and universities around the country and internationally. Bingham says audiences have been mostly receptive.

"We have large numbers of people come out in crappy weather," she said. "We had a foot of snow in Chicago last night, and lots of people came and asked questions, and then talked to us afterwards in the lobby till 11:20. We find people who are very curious to understand what is happening in Iraq. No one else has anything like this, and no one is going to because of the situation now in Iraq."

The directors have met with various networks about broadcasting the film, but so far they haven't had any luck.

"One of first comments we got from an executive producer for one network was we need to provide some balance," Connors said. "I said, 'We've had two years of military spokesmen on TV. This is the balance.'"

In the meantime, the documentary continues to be shown in selected cities, and a DVD will be released in 2008. The directors hope that after seeing the movie, people will question the information they get about Iraq.

"I didn't set out to make some great eulogy to warriors of Iraq," Bingham said. "We felt it was important to allow people to be heard who are having a serious impact on U.S. policy."

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.