My Country My Country
Telling new documentary about Iraqi elections gets our vote
My Country My Country
Directed by Laura Poitras
We did not invade Iraq in retaliation for 9/11 (despite what our administration might have previously said). We did not invade Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction (despite what our administration might have previously said). We did not invade Iraq to steal all of the country’s oil (despite what much of the rest of the world might have said). No, we invaded Iraq to bring democracy to the Middle East!
Very well then, if we take our government’s most recent (and thus far most lucid) argument for the continuing war in Iraq at face value, what exactly have we achieved in Iraq?
My Country My Country attempts to answer that question by dispassionately observing the six-month lead-up to January 30, 2005, the date of Iraq’s first-ever free and democratic election. Director Laura Poitras (Flag Wars) has created a narration-free, polemic-free look at the election process and the people around it. Her quiet, clear-eyed film chronicles the everyday Iraqis, most of whom seem eager to embrace the idea of democracy. It checks in on the U.N. observers, who all appear to be standing around with their fingers crossed. It visits the American military, who--in the words of one military officer--“couldn’t give a damn what some guy in Denmark thinks.” It follows the private security firm contracted to oversee the balloting procedure. (“Overseeing” apparently includes a Walmart-sized shopping list of automatic weapons.) But most of all, the film finds its centerpiece in the election bid of Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh.
Riyadh is running for the Governate Council of Baghdad. A perfectly reasonable, soft-spoken, middle-aged family man, he is as faultless a symbol for the average Iraqi as he would be for the average American. He volunteers at a free clinic in Baghdad, visits patients in prison camps, helps his neighbors and occasionally squeezes in a moment to shake hands and talk about his country’s political future. “Would you vote for me if I were on the ballot?” he asks a potential voter. Even after receiving an affirmative, he cautions the would-be supporter: “Wait for the ballot. Read it over. There could be a relative or someone from your neighborhood on it.” Could you find a better example of democracy in action than Riyadh’s grassroots, man-of-the-people run for office?
Poitras’ film is filled with quietly telling moments. At one point, Riyadh is visited by a female patient. She has no money to feed herself or her children. Her husband, who has joined the insurgents, takes all the family’s money and gives it to fundamentalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Without hesitation, Riyadh offers her some dinars. “Without your help, I would have died long ago,” says the woman. “I would have been erased from existence.” The look on Riyadh’s face says it all. He’s a deeply moral man. He wants to help people. He wants to fix his country. But the burden stacking up on his shoulders is enormous. He looks tired--tired in the way a rich American candidate fending off petty, mudslinging allegations of adultery (or whatever) never could. This is a politician fighting a pitched, possibly unwinnable battle to build a country from the ground up.
Can you imagine an American politician running for a major office waking up on the morning of the election and preparing his breakfast by lamplight because there is no electricity in the capital city, then pondering whether or not to go to the polls himself because of all the bombs going off in his neighborhood?
Despite the tribulations, Riyadh, a Sunni Arab, worries about his people boycotting the election. He feels that all factions should be represented in the new government. Not voting, he knows, means not getting a voice. As the Sunni leaders continue to press for a boycott and the election process becomes increasingly troubled, Riyadh’s doubts and frustrations grow.
The film frequently veers off from Riyadh’s story to include a detailed survey of election preparations as well as a more general look at ordinary day-to-day Iraqi life under the occupation. Certainly no one in Iraq is missing Saddam Hussein. Most Iraqis have a marked hatred for the man. But people are still suffering greatly under the American regime. “We like America. We are pro-America. Especially my people,” says one Kurdish security expert. “But when something is wrong, it’s wrong. You are my friend, but when you make mistakes, I have to tell you. George Bush can say what he likes, but he cannot control the situation. After two years everything is getting better? No.”
My Country My Country is not an unhopeful film. But it is a profoundly cautious one--one that even the most ardent of neoconservatives might find hard to shake off. It offers viewers a far more detailed portrait of what’s going on in Iraq then they would get from watching the evening news or listening to soundbites from the White House. In the end, this film reminds us it isn’t politics or propaganda or men with guns who define a nation. It is the people.