Film Shows Iraqi Elections Through Local Eyes

Filmmaker Laura Poitras talks about her documentary film on the occupation of Iraq with Farai Chideya. My Country, My Country chronicles the life of an Iraqi doctor in the days leading up to the Iraqi elections of 2005.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

When the war in Iraq began, many people in the U.S. thought the American-led operation would be seen as liberation from a cruel dictator. Now, more than three years later, the war is seen by many Iraqis as an unlawful occupation of the country.

One of the few successes the Bush administration could point to during this time was the countrywide elections for a provisional government held in January of 2005. While 58 percent of Iraqis voted, most Sunni Muslims in the country boycotted the election.

Director and cinematographer Laura Poitras spent the six months leading up to the vote documenting the occupation and the election preparations for her film, My Country, My Country.

Laura, thanks for joining us.

Ms. LAURA POITRAS (Director, My Country, My Country): Hi. It's great to be here.

CHIDEYA: So the main character in your film is Dr. Riyadh. He's a Baghdad doctor who's also running for a seat on the Baghdad provisional council as a Sunni in the Islamic Party.

He's got a very comfortable home, a tight-knit family. What made you choose him as the vehicle to tell the story?

Ms. POITRAS: I was interested in him because he was both wanting to participate in political life - as an Iraqi, he wants to serve his country - but also was critical of the U.S. occupation there. So he was in an interesting position that both challenged or questioned things about the legitimacy of the elections, but was also himself very passionate about participating.

CHIDEYA: Who was he before the occupation of Iraq?

Ms. POITRAS: He was a doctor. He's Sunni. He was never a part of the Baathist party. He runs a free medical clinic in a Sunni neighborhood called Adamiyah, which is also where he lives. And he also works at local hospitals.

CHIDEYA: Why do you think it is that someone who already has this important position, trying to take care the health of people in his country, would take another step forward and try to get into political leadership?

Ms. POITRAS: I think he's really motivated by a sense of duty and a sense of faith. And I think he truly believes in the importance of participating and serving his country and the people from his neighborhood. And I think he also very much believes in establishing a government that's based in the principles of Islam.

So for him to run a political life, it's because he's a leader in his neighborhood.

(Soundbite of movie “My Country, My Country”)

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

CHIDEYA: So here we have sounds from Abu Ghraib. We've got Dr. Riyadh serving the prisoners there, as they call out to him from behind a barbed wire fence. He's shadowed by an officer from the U.S. military, and at one point he sees a group of boys. He turns to the officer:

(Soundbite of movie “My Country, My Country”)

Dr. RIYADH: This is type for punishment.

Unidentified Man: Yes.

Dr. RIYADH: This type of punishment, they can't bear because they are children.

Unidentified Man #2: We have looked through every one of these files. These juveniles are dangerous.

CHIDEYA: What did that moment in the film mean to you?

Ms. POITRAS: Yeah. It's - actually the scene at Abu Ghraib was the first time I had met Dr. Riyadh. I had been filming in the country for about a month and there was an inspection there and I had gotten permission to film it, and he was leading this inspection.

And it went on for about two hours where he was going through and taking down information. And Dr. Riyadh kept pushing the military, saying I want to see what's happening over there. And then someone from behind this tent said there are juveniles. Go to that, you know, go behind that fence there. There are juveniles over there. So he went there and that's where he found them.

And it, you know, in that moment it really just captured the tragedy of the situation that you have, you know, 9-year-olds that are being detained without counsel, without charges being brought. And then Dr. Riyadh was trying to negotiate on their behalf. And I really, as a filmmaker, I was pretty convinced right there that he would become the protagonist of the film.

CHIDEYA: You don't use narration in this film. You just bring us these different people: Dr. Riyadh, U.S. forces, Kurds, journalists, security workers for a private Australian security company. How did you choose the characters in this, and why was it important to get these other perspectives?

Ms. POITRAS: Yeah. I really wanted to tell really a big story about the U.S. presence there and what the larger project is. And I wanted to also really have it have a human perspective and a human heart to it. So I wanted to be able to have a strong through-line, which was the elections and the doctor.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's hear a little bit of how the U.S. officials were approaching the issue of this upcoming election.

(Soundbite of movie “My Country, My Country”)

Unidentified Man #3: You want to think about does Joe Iraqi going to think on February 1 after all of these elections have happened, because spoilers are going to stand up everywhere and try to make the case that these elections were illegitimate.

What I'm trying to make with that point is that I don't really care what the international - I don't care what Denmark thinks about these elections. I don't really care about what happens with those international observers, personally. Primarily, what I care about is Joe Iraqi's opinion. I don't think Joe Iraqi cares about Jimmy Carter so much.

CHIDEYA: You know, your film doesn't really leave us with any easy answers, despite the fact that we followed the election. I don't think anyone completely knows where Iraq is headed. Talking to Dr. Riyadh, how are his spirits? How is he faring?

Ms. POITRAS: I mean it's really - the situation is just so dire and it gets worse everyday. And obviously it's the really horrible security situation that is so devastating. So he - his wife and kids would like to leave the country. But he doesn't want to leave. He really feels that he should stay in his community and work for the people there.

But his spirits are very low and he does talk about that it's a civil war there. And he can't - there's certain neighborhoods that he can't go to because he's Sunni. He actually has a practice in two neighborhoods. One is a Sunni neighborhood and one is a Shia neighborhood. He has a practice in Sadr City, and he can't now go his officer in Sadr City because of the militia checkpoints that are set up.

So it's really dire and I think he's very despairing about the future.

(Soundbite of movie “My Country, My Country”)

Dr. RIYADH: Many innocent people were killed; it is a process of mass killing. This is a shame. The war had been over since last May, but it seems to be continuous.

Unidentified Man #4: I've heard everything that you've said. Some of what you've said has touched me in my heart…

CHIDEYA: Laura Poitras is the director of the documentary My Country, My Country. The film is currently playing in Los Angeles. You can go to our Web site, npr.org, to see when it rolls out in other cities.

Laura Poitras, thank you so much.

Ms. POITRAS: Thank you.

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