Film Offers Intimate Look at Iraqi Political Life The documentary My Country, My Country follows the story of a doctor in Iraq who is running for political office. Director Laura Poitras lived with the doctor, his wife and their six children while shooting the film.
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Film Offers Intimate Look at Iraqi Political Life

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Film Offers Intimate Look at Iraqi Political Life

Film Offers Intimate Look at Iraqi Political Life

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In January of 2005, millions of Iraqis held up fingers stained in purple ink - proof they had voted in the first election since the fall of Saddam Hussein. American filmmaker Laura Poitras was there documenting the life of one candidate. Her film, "My Country, My Country", is now up for an Academy Award. At its center of Dr. Riyadh, who runs a free clinic in a Sunni neighborhood. Here he explains to a reporter why he's putting himself in danger to run for the provincial council.

Dr. RIYADH (Runs Free Clinic in Iraq, Ran for Provincial Council): I love my country, my district, my neighborhood, my people. I will work with them till the last minute of my life.

MONTAGNE: Laura Poitras spent eight months filming Dr. Riyadh, his family and all the activity that swirled around making the elections happen. It's an intimate portrait not often seen of everyday life in Baghdad. There's the wake-up call of roosters and gunfire, dinners eaten by the light of an oil lamp, Dr. Riyadh's banter with his spirited daughters.

(Soundbite of movie, "My Country, My Country")

Dr. RIYADH: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Dr. RIYADH: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

Dr. RIYADH: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: Filmmaker Laura Poitras met Dr. Riyadh in the summer of 2004. He was participating in a health inspection at Abu Ghraib prison.

Ms. LAURA POITRAS (Filmmaker, "My Country, My Country): I introduced myself to Dr. Riyadh and I said that I was an American filmmaker and I wanted to follow him during this inspection. And I should say that this is about two months after the photographs from the prison were public. And his immediate response was, yes. Please follow us. We want transparency and we want the world to understand what's happening, the suffering of Iraqis.

But the other thing I would say is that it was an incredibly, extraordinarily brave thing for Dr. Riyadh to let me follow him and film him, not only at Abu Ghraib prison, but in his clinic and in his home and to stay with him and his family. And I think that his courage and bravery hopefully comes through in the film.

MONTAGNE: The movie begins with something so simple. It's a teapot coming to a boil in a dark room. There's something so normal, mundane, small about it. The most effecting aspects of this movie were these small things.

Ms. POITRAS: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I mean, you know, and the scene with the tea - you also hear gunfire in the background, and it's preceded by a bomb going off. And I think that this sort of juxtaposition of daily life in a war is something that I wanted to capture, something that Iraqis are living with daily.

(Soundbite of bomb exploding)

MONTAGNE: The big question posed to Dr. Riyadh at the beginning of your film by his son is are you going to vote? When you were filming this and you saw his son ask this question, how weighted was that question?

Ms. POITRAS: The question of whether to participate in the elections I think is something that, in the film, it really tortured Dr. Riyadh. Because I think on one hand he believed that if the Sunnis didn't participate, then they wouldn't have any say in the new government. But at the same time, the party was arguing - and some would say rightfully - that it's very hard to have elections under an occupation.

And so I think that this, you know, this dilemma, this tension carries a huge weight in the film. And then on election day, what Dr. Riyadh decides what to do, I think, captures something about the kind of tragedy of the war more generally, that people are trying to do the right thing in impossible circumstances.

MONTAGNE: Is there a moment in the film or a particular scene that you could describe for us that holds a lot of the meaning of the film?

Ms. POITRAS: Yeah. The scene where Dr. Riyadh's nephew is kidnapped. I mean, for me, this scene, this happened right before the elections and we didn't know why he was taken. We didn't know if it was, you know, criminal - for money. We didn't know it was political, because Dr. Riyadh was on the ballot. And so as that scene unfolds, there's a moment where the father of the boy is on the phone and…

MONTAGNE: Negotiating. Gosh.

Ms. POITRAS: Right. With the kidnappers. And he thinks he's hung up the phone, but he hasn't. And he's telling Dr. Riyadh that there was a checkpoint on his way to Dr. Riyadh's house, and he explained to the military that his boy had been - the U.S. military - that his boy had been kidnapped. And the military is very responsive, they think this is terrible.

Meanwhile, the phone is still connected, so the hostage takers listening in, you know, to him saying that he talked to the Americans. Then they say you've talked to the Americans, now the boy is definitely dead. And everyone thinks everyone's going to be killed in this situation.

MONTAGNE: And the moment of realization of what he's done accidentally.

(Soundbite of movie, "My Country, My Country")

Dr. RIYADH: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. POITRAS: And it's, I think, an example of this precarious position of the U.S. military there. Because what the military did was, you know, in good intentions trying to help release the boy. At the same time, just sort of the mere contact creates more risk.

MONTAGNE: There's some scenes of the military - there's at least one where there's a pep talk being given by one of the - what is he?

Ms. POITRAS: Yeah. It's actually - it's a contractor who is brought in to talk to Iraqi police who were going to be sort of on the frontlines on election day.

(Soundbite of movie, "My Country, My Country")

Unidentified Man #1 (Contractor): What you are involved in here is a very important process. You are coming to your first election. You folks are going to be on television all over the world.

Ms. POITRAS: And you see, you know, sort of look around these faces and hear it - cause this is Iraqi police, and we all know what's happening to the Iraqi police. It's being targeted. So these are people who are actually going to be on the frontlines.

(Soundbite of movie, "My Country, My Country")

Unidentified Man #1: You have the front row of one of the best shows that's going to be in the world.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. POITRAS: And then, at one point, an Iraqi interrupts in perfect English to ask, you know, what do you mean by a show? And is this really a show-show? I mean, isn't this going to be real history? And sort of in that moment, I think the disparity between the experience of the violence for Iraqis - which is not at all a show, it's very, very real - and us who watch what's happening on television or read the paper, you know, it's one of these scenes that really captures that contradiction.

MONTAGNE: For Dr. Riyadh, despite his commitment to stay, that violence finally forced him to flee with his family. They're refugees now in a country he prefers not to name. Still, Dr. Riyadh has tried to keep helping those he left behind. He's communicating with his clinic in Baghdad and the city council through e-mail until the day he can return.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Laura Poitras's film is "My Country, My Country." The Air Force now uses it to train officers in cultural understanding. And this Sunday, it will be one of the documentaries in contention for an Academy Award.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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