Iraq: The Doctor Is In
War is a classic subject for documentary film. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has attracted many filmmakers whose important work is filling in the gaps left by major news media. The makers of "Occupation: Dreamland" and "Gunner Palace " lived with American soldiers 24/7 in Iraq. The director of "The War Tapes" took embedding a step further by giving video cameras to a National Guard unit.
The latest entry in this pantheon is "My Country, My Country," by Laura Poitras. The film reveals the impact of the U.S. occupation on an Iraqi doctor's life and his efforts to take part in the electoral process as a Sunni candidate for a Baghdad provincial council seat. The film provides a unique look at Iraq from Dr. Riyadh's perspective during the chaotic months leading up to the January 2005 election. (For security reasons, the doctor is identified only by first name.)
When Poitras landed in Iraq in June 2004, she says her initial idea was to examine the contradictions between the policy of preemptive military invasion and bringing democracy. "I thought I would tell that story through the military, but I scrapped that idea when I hit the ground and realized I needed an Iraqi P.O.V."
The film's verite approach is both its strength and its weakness. "I wanted to find stories that could unfold," Poitras explains. "I didn't want to do interviews." Viewers get some fascinating insight into the challenges Dr. Riyadh faces. While he is highly critical of the U.S. occupation, he is also a great believer in democracy. He seems to occupy a unique role in his Baghdad Sunni community and puts himself in harm's way by continuing to run for office while candidates are being assassinated weekly. Sounds of gunfire and bombs in the background highlight the constant danger and uncertainty of the time period.
But these scenes often leave the viewer with more questions than answers. Since Poitras chose not to question her subjects, one wonders how the doctor is able to support himself. Who funds his free clinic? Do other Sunnis see him as an American collaborator because he has met with the U.S. Army to find out why they bombed Fallujah?
The film cuts away from Dr. Riyadh periodically to show the U.S. Army's intense election preparations, scenes with United Nations official Carlos Valenzuela, and the eye-opening work of Australian private contractors hired by the Independent Election Commission of Iraq to provide security, handling everything from delivering the ballots to securing the polling places. Viewers are often thrust into the midst of the action, which makes these scenes confusing. But such moments, which attempt to provide a wider context for the film, do effectively illustrate the immense undertaking of the election process in Iraq. Unfortunately, they distract from the doctor's compelling story.
Poitras met the English-speaking doctor when she was filming at Abu Ghraib prison two months after the barbaric pictures of prisoner torture were released worldwide. Dr. Riyadh was at the prison to make note of detainees' chronic medical conditions. She shows him asking prisoners behind a chain link fence topped with razor wire how long they've been there. They shout out various numbers: "One year and 13 days!" "Eight months!" "Three months!"
As the doctor walks along the fence, he spots a young boy who is also a prisoner and discovers that he's only 9 years old, which prompts the accompanying guard to say, "Juveniles are dangerous." The director says this startling scene was possible because she was making a long-form documentary and the military knew that it would not be appearing on CNN the next day.
The doctor is portrayed in many other settings, including at the clinic seeing patients, at home discussing Iraqi politics and eating dinner with his family by candlelight because the power has gone out, and at a political meeting imploring his Sunni party members to participate in the upcoming election and cajoling his daughters to vote -- all scenes we certainly don't see on the nightly news in the United States.
Although Poitras arrived in Iraq without any local contacts or a camera crew, she did have permission from the U.S. Army's Civil Affairs branch to film in Iraq. She also had plenty of chutzpah, which enabled her to get unusual access to military briefings and the rare opportunity to film at Abu Ghraib prison. How was she able to record such scenes? "Certain things were possible because I was a woman and I was alone," Poitras admits. "Military culture and Arab culture didn't know what to make of me."
She ended up staying in Iraq for eight months, doing triple duty as director, cameraperson and sound recorder for her film. Poitras says she felt compelled to go despite the concerted efforts of her family and friends to abandon her trip. "I just felt that need as a filmmaker and as a human being to capture what was happening there. I wanted to channel the feeling of despair and dread I felt reading the news."
"My Country, My Country" opens in Bay Area theaters on Sept. 8 and airs on public television's P.O.V. on Oct. 25.