Monday, June 18, 2007

Film Review: My Country, In Fragments

In our country, it's easy to get an inside view on the lives of others, their interactions, and the motivations behind their choices. Biographies, interviews, and even personally interacting with our fellow Americans gives us a pretty good understanding of who we are as individuals and a country.

To gain that kind of insight into other cultures, however, is more difficult. Our most basic line of information is the news, and in the case of Iraq, what the news depicts and what life is really like over there don't often equate. To help bridge that gap, two recent documentaries, My Country, My Country and Iraq in Fragments, offer brilliantly contrasting insights on what it is to be an Iraqi.

In a Ground Truth Interview, filmmaker Laura Poitras offered a fascinating first hand perspective on what life is actually like for the citizens of Iraq. Her movie, My Country, My Country, depicts is exactly that: life. With a backdrop of the 2005 Iraqi election, it chronicles the family of Dr. Riyadh as he prepares to move from the medical profession into the political sector. Poitras showcases complex nuances, as well as how Dr. Riyadh's story fit into what was happening in the broader scope of Iraq.

When focusing on his decision to join the Iraqi Islamic Party and persuade the organization to participate in the 2005 Provincial elections - the only local voting yet - his contemplative
nature is always at the forefront of the screen. I was fascinated to not only see how his professional decisions are effected by conversations within his family, but to be privy to his ongoing introspection as well. It's the inner, day-to-day struggles we go through in life that connect us as humans, and My Country My Country helps us relate to Iraqi citizens in this more personal way.

Iraq in Fragments takes a different angle. Broken up into three parts - each showing Iraq's respective sects - the film has a broader narrative. From chronicling a young Sunni boy's decision of whether to stay in school or continue working with an abusive friend of his Grandmother, to the extent of Moqtada al-Sadr's influence on his Shia followers, the film touches on a variety of dispositions in Iraq. The third and final part of the documentary depicts life in a Kurdish brick maker’s home. While an odd way to end the piece, it leaves you with a sense of hope - as if the more peaceful Kurdish North could somehow provide a blueprint for the rest of the country.

Starting off in such an eccentric fashion, and ending in much the same way - leaving only the middle to offer footage familiar to our understanding - Iraq in Fragments leaves you yearning for just a little more. But that's the brilliance of it; before you're able to discern exactly why they chose to concentrate on these particular stories and not explore more traditional avenues, it's over. It leaves you wanting an insiders' view on more Iraqis' lives. As with My Country My Country, we are offered a unique perspective on regular citizens instead of suicide bombings and tragedy.

Through both films, I came to understand how Iraqi citizens make it through the day. I understand why they are hopeful. And ultimately, that's the key: an understanding. Until we understand the situation, we cannot solve it.


These two documentaries let us in on Iraq’s best kept secret: its people.

37 comments:

Anonymous said...

The links for the movies take me to IMDb. On this site can I download and watch the movies or do I have to buy them?

Geoff Schaefer said...

To my knowledge you can't get these movies via download (legally at least). You can check iTunes out, but I think these may be a little too esoteric for their selection. I would definitely rent them though as they are both worth it. However, being so different from each other, I think the best idea would be to watch both and compare and contrast.

still lurking said...

Just wanted to say that there have been some really thoughtful comments recently and I'm enjoying them immensely!

Geoff Schaefer said...

I agree still lurking. It's been fantastic here at the office watching all of the posts come in with such fervency. We want this blog to be the number one spot for debate on all things Iraq and with everyone putting more effort into expressing their opinions about our blogs, it looks like progress is being made towards that goal.

Anonymous said...

How can we ever understand a mentality that does not seem to value human life? The threat of having a suicide bomber set himself or herself off anywhere, anytime, without seeming to care about connections, family or friends - it's beyond comprehension.

Anonymous4 said...

Anonymous - If you mean Iraqis, Arabs, or Muslims have a mentality that doesn't value human life - bottom line you're wrong! Islam is a very peaceful religion, and if you would take the chance to read about it or study it you would find a core that respects and values human life. Every religion in the world has factional fundamentalist groups that abuse religion and religious teachings to get what they want. These groups usually find it most effective to go after certain groups of people who have gone through tremendous loss, hardships, humiliation and devistation. They provide services to them (look at Hamas), which the government cannot or will not provide, and at the same time exploit their weak state of mind with fundamentalist rhetoric - and there you have it a suicide bomber! Take some time and look at the issues as a whole and maybe it will be easier to understand, and less tempting for you to use overgeneralizations that are not fair. The mentality of suicide bomers is very hard to understand because it's not human nature to kill yourself for a cause, but these are radical groups preying on weak minds who have nothing to live for. Take a look at our own country and the fundamentalist sect of the Mormon church who practice polygamy, take advantage of the welfare system, and where girls as young as 12 are married off to much older men! It wouldn't be fair for us to base Mormonism on this break-off sect, or Christianity for that matter - would it?

Geoff Schaefer said...

Anonymous - That's an excellent question. Let me answer it in two ways. The first, and most important: the majority of Iraqis are not suicide bombers. While seemingly incongruent with what we hear all the time, the fact is that the minority (the suicide bombers) are what gets the attention in the media. That's why these two films are excellent in that they show the way families like you and me are trying to survive these attacks just like our soldiers.

The second way to look at this is we don't have a choice - we HAVE to understand them. It may not seem easy (because you're right, it's not) we simply don't have a choice.

The reason being, even if we were to leave Iraq tomorrow, terrorism would still grip the international world. It will continue to be a problem for generations. So while a tremendous challenge, we have to rely on experts in the field to take a step back and look at fundamentalist's motivations and incentives for using these methods.

I have a lot of hope on this issue because a)it's most likely what I will be basing a career on and b) there was a fantastic article in the last Atlantic (with Condi Rice on the cover) that addressed this.

I would STRONGLY STRONGLY encourage you to read it because it has really influence my thinking on this quandary and has given me new new insights on how to mitigate the fundamentalist drawl.

Briefly: It talks of how Saudi Arabia is conducting a psychological program that basically rehabilitates desired recruits for groups like Al Qaeda. The details are too much for this forum but it has something like a 70% success rate. Check it out for yourself. It's a fascinating look at this problem.

Geoff Schaefer said...

Anonymous number 2 - Accurate point. In all generalizations, the fundamentalists essentially brainwash young adults, teenagers, and kids when they are at their weakest points. If you read a little bit on this subject, it is actually quite similar to the brainwashing of cult members.

We sit back and wonder all the time how someone could possibly succumb to these obviously loony members, but it happens for a reason - they are looking for something in their lives and these leaders know exactly how to exploit that.

I would be careful though Anonymous to bring the Mormon Church into this. While you may or may not be right about you comment, I would wish for this forum to remain respectful of our members' religions, as we don't know exactly who practices what.

The Mormons who practice polygamy and other acts that are at odds with our cultural norms, are radicals of Mormonism themselves. They are the minority, and it wouldn't be fair to base our assumptions of both of these faiths off of these two sects, just like you said. Other people might misconstrue your words I'm afraid.

The Mormon faith does not condone those practices, nor does Islam condone suicide bombings. We need to be careful and always separate the innocent followers of these faiths from the people who are working to perverse it.

Anonymous4 said...

Geoff- that's my point exactly. I was drawing a connection with the lunacy of labeling all Muslims terrorists and labeling all Mormons polygamists - it's crazy! It's easy for a lot of Americans who don't understand Islam to overgeneralize and clump everyone into one group - the group that gets the most attention - the fundamentalists. So, I was trying to bring it closer to home and give an example of a religion that has a splinter group which claims fundamental roots, and say that it's not the same as the origional faith - it's different. It's not acceptable to oversimplify with any religion!

jt said...

The Mormon's don't still do those things anyway. At least I didn't think they did! Wonder if talk like that is getting started over Romney leading the pack right now?

Anonymous4 said...

JT - Check out "Under the Banner of Heaven" by John Krakauer. Mit Romney is a part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Like I said before it's very different from the fundamentalist Mormon sect, and there would be a lot of people upset if they were catagorized together. So no, doesn't have anything to do with Romney. I was just using it as an example of a splinter sect. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The trouble is that suicide bombers have such a devastating effect on everyone's life, whether it's directly or just always having to be so fearful. Also, I've heard some of them talk of how wonderful it would be to die such a death and take so many with them. How can we hope to understand this? Why aren't the so-called majority who want peace and value life speaking out against this faction? And if they are, why don't we hear about it?

Geoff Schaefer said...

Anonymous4 - It looks like we're on the same page here. I definitely agree though that we need to be very very careful in how we talk about religion. It's funny because a lot of times you hear people talk about Islam and mention how it's a peaceful faith that is quite beautiful, but then a sentence or two later their phrasing lumps the fundamentalists back in with the whole of Islam.

Same thing with Mormons. To a lot of the general public, their polygamist few constitute the general image of Mormonism for so many. It's quite unfortunate.

Emily Stivers said...

I have to weigh in on the subject of suicide bombers. First, they are rarely if ever the poorest, most vulnerable members of a society. A huge majority of actual Jihadis - notably, those who conducted the London and Madrid bombings - are Western-educated young men with strong family and community ties.

They are, however, often underemployed, alienated and discriminated against in Western society. That kind of frustration isn't so uncommon, is it? Little makes people more angry than not getting something they feel they deserve. How would you feel knowing you were more qualified, but someone else got the job because of the color of his or her skin?

Still not angry enough to kill, of course. But add to that a systematic disrespect for your culture and values (exemplified by comments such as "they don't value human life"), the massive oppression of your people, your 8-year-old sister being killed by U.S. troops, and an extremely charismatic leader telling you what you can do about it...and we're getting a little closer to how suicide bombers must feel.

For more information, check out this Brookings article by Scott Atran of the University of Michigan - the most brilliant man I've ever met.

reader said...

Looking at it that way, Emily, it's an even scarier scenario!

Geoff Schaefer said...

Emily is right. However, I must add; although a lot of them may be highly educated, because of the strong dissatisfaction with their situation and utter hopelessness, the fundamentalist leaders are able to systematically dismantle their normal thinking. After which, they are able to either replace information or twist their thinking enough to make them feel that suicide bombing is their only option to save themselves.

Others legitimately feel that become a suicide bomber is becoming a martyr and there is no more honorable way to die. There are a lot of reasons and methods on how these guys reach that stage but the combination of utter hopelessness and a fundamentalist "salesman" is deadly.

Emily Stivers said...

I'm going to have to disagree strongly with my colleague, here. From the article I've linked:

"The body of research shows that over all, suicide terrorists tend not to have the attributes of the socially dysfunctional (fatherless, friendless, jobless). They don't vent fear of enemies or express hopelessness or a sense of "nothing to lose" because of lack of a career or social mobility as would be consistent with economic theories of criminal behavior. Suicide attackers don't opt for paradise out of despair. If they did, say Muslim clerics who countenance martyrdom for Allah but not personal suicide, their actions would be criminal and blasphemous."

It is NOT about hopelessness, poverty or even insanity. So what is it?

"Intense indoctrination, often lasting 18 months or more, causes recruits to identify emotionally with their terrorist cell, viewing it as a family for whom they are as willing to die as a mother for her child or a soldier for his buddies. Consider the oath taken by members of Harkat al Ansar, a Pakistan-based ally of Al Qaeda: "Each martyr has a special place — among them are brothers, just as there are sons and those even more dear.""

These are men who value their families, real and surrogate, above their own lives -- dare I say, similar to the way our own troops are willing to die for their country.

Anonymous4 said...

Emily - Is this really what YOU think, or is it based soley on the Brookings article? I agree with Geoff. Emily, how do you explain the child soldier epidemic? Has very similar ties to suicide bombers in the sense that something clicks and rational thinking is no longer their reality. How do you explain 18 year old Ayat Akhras, who went into an Israeli supermarket in 2002 and detonated an explosive that killed two Israelis and herself? These two cases don't fit into your Brookings Article. How would you explain that? The mentality that comes from destruction, loss, humiliation, which in turn stimulates fear and devistation is not so easy to fit into a mold that comes out of one article.

Geoff Schaefer said...

"Intense indoctrination, often lasting 18 months or more, causes recruits to identify emotionally with their terrorist cell, viewing it as a family for whom they are as willing to die as a mother for her child or a soldier for his buddies..."

Just like being brainwashed by a cult. They are taken away from their families and isolated from their normal patterns of thinking, habits, etc, and the terrorist cell becomes all they know. There is no dissenting opinion and being surrounded by people who all agree with the same point of view leads to "group think" - increasing the plausibility of the information they're being fed.

Intense indoctrination may be considered "highly educated" in their faith, but it's solely for the purpose of making them believe this is the highest form of worship.

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200706/saudi-jihad

That's nowhere near the full story but that is the article on which I base my claims.

Emily Stivers said...

anonymous4 - I'm using that one article because it's short and accessible, but there is a HUGE breadth of evidence out there that cases such as the ones you describe are the exception and nothing close to the norm when it comes to suicide bombings. I actually took a graduate level course titled "Transnational Terrorism, Religion and the Limits of Reason" that probed the psyche of terrorists in great depth.

More articles supporting my position:

Soft Power and the Psychology of Suicide Bombing

Combatting Al-Qaeda's Splinters: Mishandling Suicide Terrorism

Trends in Suicide Terror: Sense and Nonsense

Geoff Schaefer said...

Emily and I just realized these postings are on the review of two documentaries. I think we got slightly off topic haha.

Anyone see these yet?

Anonymous said...

you're the expert!

Anonymous said...

If there is a question or something needing discussion, I don't think you can be off topic. Both points of view are quite interesting. In my mind, I still wonder -

Geoff Schaefer said...

Good point - I would also suggest the movies Syrianna and Paradise Now. They are fictional but based on personal experiences by the writers/directors.

Anonymous4 said...

Great point Geoff. I would also suggest Battle of Algiers, which shows a completely different side of the arguement.

jt said...

Okay, I got my movies & documentaries lined up for the summer! Ha! Soon I'll be following up my comments with a few links of my own!

Geoff Schaefer said...

Battle of Algiers? What's that one about? Sounds intriguing.

JT - watcha got on your list? Anything else that wasn't mentioned here? I'm movie obsessed and would love to add some more to my list.

Anonymous 4 said...

Battle of Algiers is a great film depicting the Algerian fight for liberation from France between 1954 and 1962. Its by Gillo Pontecorvo. The characters are based on real people and some of the footage is actual newsreel. Its a fantastic movie that has a little bit of a cult following among political scientists. It's themes of anti-colonialism and nationalism and the way they are depicted are timeless and can be applied to much of the current international conflict we see today. Definately see this movie!

Geoff Schaefer said...

consider it on my list. Do you think Blockbuster would have it or am I going to have to Amazon this?

Anonymous said...

On the subject of suicide bombers, allthough a horrible occurence, I think it is important to note that they do not reflect a lack of value for human life, but ultimately their goal is to become martyrs, which one could contend is actually placing the utmost value on human life as a means to affect sweeping social and political changes.

Also, this type of desire to be a martyr is far from being isolated to Muslims or even recent history. Martyr's are highly praised throughout the Bible as men of great conviction, the Japanease used kamikazee pilots who were not Muslim, you can even look to modern day Hollywood for these types of heroes; just watch Dances With Wolves where Kevin Coster parades himself in front of enemy lines as a diversion, or Braveheart where Mel Gibson's character undergoes a gruesome death for the refusal to submit to England.

Allthough admittedly none of these examples are exact parrallells, they all represent a deep seeded impulse to sacrafice one's life in order that you may provide a better future for others. As misguided as suicide bombers are, the psychology of these actions is not so much different then our own.

Anonymous 4 said...

I would be surprised if they didn't have it a blockbuster. It was rereleased in 2003 on DVD I believe. I'm very excited that someone who hasn't seen it is interested....it really is great.

Nick Collecchi said...

Nice post, and we at Typecast Films thank you. We’re very proud of this film, which we produced as well as distribute. Iraq In Fragments will be going on sale on the AFD website in the very near future, where you can also buy Paradise Now and Battle of Algiers. Iraq in Fragments is now available through Netflix, and will be available for renatal and sale at select video stores in July.

Geoff Schaefer said...

Nick, welcome to forum and thank you very much for taking the time to post and let us know what your site has available. I changed the links from IMDB to the AFD Website so people can go straight to the source.

I would love to know, and I'm sure it would do us all good, to hear your thoughts on some of these films and what you look for in these types of documentaries. I think it would bring a lot to this blog.

Again, welcome.

Wendy said...

I'm a college student studying Iraq and Afghanistan I would like hear from any servicemen or women about their opinions of the situation after experiencing it firsthand. Has your opinion changed?

Anonymous said...

Why is pacifism and objection to all war discredited and marginalized? You don't have to be in a "traditional peace church"like the Mennonites or Quakers.

Emily Stivers said...

Wendy - check out our Ground Truth Interview with Kirk Johnson. He was not a soldier, but was stationed in Iraq for some time and has a first-hand perspective.

Also, check out the new NPR "Ground Truth" series on the program All Things Considered. Their first interview was with a former soldier who recently returned from Iraq and it's very interesting.

Geoff Schaefer said...

Anonymous - I would say that that requires a very complicated answer, but let me take a stab at it.

I think, frankly, people are tired of the current debate: both objections to the war, and blind adherence to it. A lot of objections and criticism are immediately passed off as irrelevant, repetitive, liberal rhetoric, even if properly grounded in fact and relevance.

Namely, people are tired of hearing it. I think more Americans are ready to sift through policy proposals and new strategies then we realize. They are tired of hearing the same-old same-old and want to solve this thing. They recognize that acute objections to the argument 180 degrees to the right or left isn't going to advance solutions.

But then again, look at where the opposition to the opposition is coming from. It's coming from the Right. And opposition to the "blind adherence" to our current war strategy is coming from the Left; again, leaving a majority of the Americans stuck in the middle waiting for the Mommy and Daddy to work out their issues.

But you're right. You don't have to be a Quaker or a Mennonite to pass objections and exhibit pacifism, but I think those practices are increasingly falling on deaf ears. While the arguments back and forth, particularly slanted against war objectors, are still prominent, the commotion is becoming white noise.

 
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