Voices of Iraq — See it on DVD

A few weeks ago I watched “Voices of Iraq” on DVD. I highly recommend it. It was made in 2004, 1 year after the invasion, and released in some “art house” theaters nationwide in 2005. It was not widely released, but did get some publicity nevertheless. That’s how I heard about it.

The concept is unique. The documentarians gave digital video cameras to Iraqis and had them pass the cameras around to their friends. They allowed them to record whatever they wanted. There is an undeniable sense of authenticity. I believe I remember reading that 450 hours of footage was taken. The released movie is about 1-1/2 hours. This is probably typical for documentaries. As with any professional video production, hours of footage taken is often greatly condensed via. editing. The reason many hours of footage are taken is that anything can happen so it’s best to have the cameras rolling. What makes the footage interesting is the editing.

From what I’ve read the producer of the film is someone who is U.S. ex-military, and did some work for MTV. A review I read in the New York Times said that you can tell, because the documentary has kind of a choppy edited feel to it, the same way MTV shows are edited. The difference is there aren’t any wild camera angles, and the music is not overpowering. The movie was edited in a New York studio. The music for the film was supplied by a Canadian-Iraqi band. The video footage, as I said, is all Iraqi.

Vehement critics of the Iraq war will be disappointed with it. While the first part of the documentary is dedicated to Iraqis who oppose the Americans, I’d say 75% of the total movie is positive. The question I ask is, “Is that bad?” This cannot simply be dismissed as a propaganda film. As one of the IMDB reviews said (I link to the IMDB entry for it above), it’s not so much pro-American as pro-Iraq. Many of the people filmed are glad that Saddam was taken down. They also have a very different sense of depravity than we do as Americans. As an example, the Abu Ghraib scandal is covered. The people interviewed think of it as nothing special. One said something like, “The people being treated roughly there were people who tortured me [under Saddam].” Another commended the Americans for their sense of empathy about the situation. He said, “Abu Ghraib was the first time any nation has apologized to an Arab country.”

There are many good moments in the movie, moments where truth is revealed, but one in particular that jumped out at me was a street bombing scene. You see the bomb go off. You see a burning, crumpled car (no bodies, so it’s not that gross). Camera people from the media show up and jockey for position to get the best shot of it. Some “demonstrators” are seen yelling, jumping around the car, waving their arms, and throwing rocks at it. However, the moment the media cameras leave, the burning car is abandoned by the “demonstrators”. You see the burning car just sitting there by itself. What this gets across is that the attack was more of a propaganda ambush than a military attack. Yes, an American vehicle was attacked, but the point was not to kill someone of high rank. It was merely gruesome “street theater”. What it also gets across is that the media is a tool of the attackers. The coordinators of this scene set up everything perfectly so that the media could get their “shocking news story”, but in a real sense it was all contrived. It was not done to achieve some military objective. It was done to make you, the viewer at home gasp in horror. It’s psychological and political warfare. The documentary makes no judgement about whether the media is complicit in the attack, or in spreading the propaganda. It just shows that the people who set this up are very good at manipulating the media. It has made me think that the media needs to take a look at itself and re-evaluate what it considers news in this region. Perhaps they’ve already done this. I’ve noticed that whenever they film IED (Improvized Explosive Device) or car bombing attacks now they don’t show close-ups of the burning cars anymore. You just see a plume of smoke in the distance.

In a related segment to the car bombing scene you see an Iraqi man talking about how “the terrorists you see are not Iraqis”, and that “they are being supported by surrounding countries who do not want democracy in Iraq.” This has been the case for a while. There have been exceptions. Some of the attacks on American forces and Iraqi citizens have been home grown, but the rule has been that the attack operations have usually been supported from outside of Iraq.

The film is chronological in nature. At certain points a headline is displayed from a major newspaper in the U.S., with the date, and video is displayed, or an interview is played, giving a sense of “the reality on the ground”, often showing that the headline is an exaggeration. This isn’t to say that the newspaper stories were not based in fact. What it says is they were not giving you the full story, and they were not giving you a balanced view of what was happening.

I’m sure there has been criticism against this movie about a lack of balance. Most of the people shown in it seem to support the invasion. One way that the film shows balance is by covering most of the regions in the country. You see people from Baghdad, from southern Iraq, like the Marsh Arabs, and northern Iraq in the Kurdish region.

The best thing about it is it humanizes the Iraqi people to those who don’t know them. It shows their concerns and worries. It shows their pain. It shows them going about their lives, and celebrating their positive accomplishments. It shows their aspirations. You get a real sense that at bottom they are just like us.

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