For nearly three decades, the citizens of Iraq were subject to the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein and his fascist whims. Outcries of protest from the people were silenced by censorship, imprisonment, and medieval torture. Removed from power by the War in Iraq, Hussein’s absence has restored to the Iraqi people the freedom of expression. Last spring, three American filmmakers sought to capture this moment of liberation through the power (and relatively cheap cost) of digital cameras. The result is the new documentary Voices of Iraq, “filmed and directed by the people of Iraq.”
150 digital cameras were distributed to Iraqi citizens along with a few pages of guidelines about what and whom to film. The cameras were passed from friend to friend, spreading across the disperate regions and cultures of Iraq: children, college students, Kurds, clerics, Christian priests, rich sheiks, poor farmers, urbanites, mothers, friends, intellectuals, artists. Edited chronologically, closing with footage from as late as Septemember 2004, the film presents an invaluable panoply of popular opinion on Iraq as a country at a dubious cross-roads. More sensistive than any paper poll, what the fragile, the irate, and the relieved people of Iraq lend to the camera is their very humanity, live and in person.
The tagline,”filmed and directed by the people of Iraq,” is telling. The camera jitters and scans amateurishly, as the cinematographers react to their subjects. One filmer is moved to put down the camera and embrace her mother, who is brought to tears by memories of the torture she endured by preparing with self-inflicted cigarette burns. Another interview, in an office, is interrupted by explosions outside, and everyone hastens to safety.
The film is a pastiche, by nature of the project, but is tastefully edited and structured by the producers to give it cohesion. The most effective post-production, aside from the editing, is the use of headlines from American newspapers to punctuate various segments of the film. Not astonishingly, the image of Iraq presented by these leading journals is debunked by a slew of footage suggesting the contrary. The most ironic example of this technique is Iraqis’ reaction to the U.S. media’s coverage of the Abu Gharib prisoner abuse scandal; they laugh when they hear of the abuse of former guards and assassins of Saddam’s inner regime at the hands of U.S. military, men who had previously committed far more brutal acts of torture on the citizens of Iraq (many of whom record their stories) under Hussein and who deserve, in their eyes, all they get (which, according to several interviewees, doesn’t even qualify as torture). The film then cuts to homemade videotapes made by Hussein’s sun, Uday, in which prisoners have body parts (tongues, hands) hacked-off in public. It is important to note that it is not the moral equivication that is of interest here, but the distorting of opinion committed by Western media. The danger is in not accurately conveying exactly what common people are actually angered by.
It’s not prisoner abuse that angers them, it’s simply the horrors of war. Families torn apart, crushing grief, the liberation of Iraq is not unlike any armed conflict: gruesome and dehumanizing. Hussein’s record of genocide against the Kurds does not match up well, either, as shots of excavations of mass-graves evince. War is the enemy here, whoever the perpetrator, and the film wisely presents both sides evenly, endorsing none. They resent both America and Saddam for this pain, and this is something more polemic docs (like, obviously, Farenheit 9/11) fail to convey. In a sense, Moore is no better than mainstream media in the amount of distortion he creates. Voice of Iraq escapes this pitfall by simply letting people speak for themselves.
The most striking images of the film are the numerous smiles. Here are people whose streets are littered with debris and flaming wreckage, whose homes have been bombed, and they are managing, in some cases, outright glee (graduating college students in May). Even the skeptics, who see economic chaos and looming collapses, seem cheerful about trying to make it work. After a quarter century of repression, the exuberance of personal liberty and the lure of democracy must be thrilling. With elections slated for January of 2005, the end of the film sees a citizenry flooded with questions: now that we have a choice, what will we choose? Issues of separating church from state, of the role of women in Iraq, and of establishing stability in an volatile region of the world are the sobering burden of a new nation.