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NEWS ARTICLE

The Reelist: Iraq on Screen

While Americans are increasingly preoccupied with domestic issues, the war in Iraq is now rapidly approaching its fifth anniversary. With that dubious date in mind, we compile a list of films that depict the turmoil in the country during and after the two American-led invasions.

What began a few years ago as a trickle of films dealing with the Iraq war, terrorism, and America's foreign policy misadventures in the Middle East has now become a veritable flood. In addition to the numerous serious Hollywood movies grappling with these issues (Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Redacted), we've seen more and more essential documentaries, such as Alex Gibney's haunting and harrowing Taxi to the Dark Side (TFF '07), opening this week, which examines torture and abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Though we're increasingly distracted by domestic issues like the Presidential primaries, the subprime lending crisis, and the writers' strike, it's important to remember that the fifth anniversary of the American-led invasion of Iraq is fast approaching, and, in the words of one provocative film released this year, there's still "no end in sight." With that dubious date in mind, we present a list of important films that explore American military engagement in the region, while capturing the plight of a people that, lest we forget, has been living with war for the better part of a generation now.
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Lessons of Darkness (Lektionen in Finsternis)

Dir. Werner Herzog, 1992
Werner Herzog's epic, highly visual documentary, sometimes referred to as a science-fiction film, concentrates on the disaster of the burning Kuwaiti oil fields in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. Herzog gracefully presents this hellish landscape through smooth truck-mounted shots and soaring aerial panoramas, seldom providing any sense of scale and giving the blazes a hauntingly majestic, unearthly feel. His narration, delivered from the perspective of a spectator from another planet, is sparse, more poetic and detached than informative; as firemen reignite jets of oil shortly after stopping the fires, he describes them as creatures motivated by madness and a desire to perpetuate the damage they were sent to fix. David Douglas' Fires of Kuwait, also released in 1992, is another more conventional look at the same subject.

12 More
  

The War Tapes
Dir. Deborah Scranton, 2006

 

Secret Ballot
Dir. Babak Payami, 2001

 

Divine Intervention
Dir. Elia Suleiman, 2002

West Beirut
Dir. Ziad Doueiri, 1998

Kippur
Dir. Amos Gitai, 2000

Wedding in Galilee
Dir. Michel Khleifi, 1987

Jiyan
Dir. Jano Rosebiani, 2002

 

Zaman, The Man from the Reeds (TFF '04)
Dir. Amer Alwan, 2003

 

Through the Olive Trees
Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 1994

 

Osama
Dir. Siddiq Barmak, 2003

 

Jarhead
Dir. Sam Mendes, 2005

 

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
Dir. Albert Brooks, 2005

Control Room

Dir. Jehane Noujaim, 2004
Following Startup.com, her acclaimed documentary investigation into the perils of the dot-com boom, Egyptian-born filmmaker Jehane Noujaim turned her attention to the ways reality is managed and constructed through the media. Her focus here was Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera's relationship with and coverage of the American military during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and how claims and counterclaims of media bias and propaganda underscored the ongoing tug-of-war between the Western and Islamic worlds. The film premiered at Sundance in 2004, and later helped Noujaim win the prestigious TED Prize, enabling her to organize Pangea Day, an international event this May that aims to unite the world through film

My Country My Country

Dir. Laura Poitras, 2005
Laura Poitras' Academy Award-nominated documentary is a unique insider's glimpse into Iraqi life under US occupation. Poitras spent over eight months alone filming in Baghdad, where she followed Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni physician who practices at the Adhamiya Free Clinic. When the US government attempts to institute democratic reforms in Iraq, Dr. Riyadh—himself an Islamic Party candidate for the Baghdad Provincial Council—is torn between supporting the popular boycott of the elections and joining them to support the democracy that could help stabilize his country. For a variety of reasons, including her inexplicable presence filming on a rooftop during an ambush, Poitras was assigned the highest rating on Homeland Security's watchlist after completing the film.

 

The Dreams of Sparrows

Dir. Haydar Daffar, 2005
First-time Iraqi director Haydar Daffar and his team of American and Iraqi contributing directors (known as the IraqEye Group) spent two years creating The Dream of Sparrows. After Saddam Hussein's capture, Daffar and his crew braved extreme danger to explore the occupation of Iraq through the eyes of those who witnessed it firsthand. Beginning with painters, writers, and filmmakers, the film delves into the arts and culture of Baghdad; later, interviews begin to veer towards the politics of occupation and resistance. The filmmakers are suddenly drawn much further into the subject when producer Sa'ad Fahker is killed during the battle of Fallujah, an event which dramatically impacts the crew's outlook on the situation in Iraq. The first feature documentary project from the IraqEye Group, The Dream of Sparrows was made with the goal of revitalizing Iraqi cinema within the worldwide film community.

 

No End in Sight

Dir. Charles Ferguson, 2007
On March 19, 2003, forces from the US and other allied nations invaded Iraq, seeking to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Major combat operations were supposed to take only a few months to complete, and just two months later, President George W. Bush declared that they were over. But by the end of 2006, American troops remained deeply involved in a splintered Iraq that was sinking into civil war. The directorial debut of political scientist and former software entrepreneur Charles Ferguson, No End in Sight concentrates on the Bush Administration's conduct of the Iraq war and the decisions that led up to the 2003 invasion, highlighting flawed plans that have not only destabilized Iraq's new government but also turned Iraqi civilians and soldiers against American "aid." The film includes interviews with numerous people who were directly involved in the initial Iraqi occupation, some speaking on camera about the war for the first time. No End in Sight premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

Occupation: Dreamland

Dir. Ian Olds and Garrett Scott, 2005
Following a unit of soldiers from the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division, directors Ian Olds and Garrett Scott traveled through the city of Fallujah as soldiers patrolled the community—searching for weapons, interrogating women, and listening to the complaints of locals in their effort to ferret out supporters of Saddam Hussein's regime. In the camp where they are stationed, nicknamed "Dreamland," many soldiers confess to doubts about the mission, wondering if they're any good, what purpose their presence serves, and why they are acting as peacekeepers when they're trained as soldiers. This last concern becomes moot when violence explodes in the city, more than a year after major combat operations were supposed to be over. The film was initially criticized for being too sympathetic towards American soldiers and not critical enough of the war, but it has since gained a following among filmgoers, intellectuals, Iraq veterans, and military families. Scott died of a heart attack in 2005, just days before the film won the Independent Spirit Award.

Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhtha parvaz mikonand)

Dir. Bahman Ghobadi, 2004
The first film made in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Turtles Can Fly takes place in a Kurdish refugee camp on the Iraqi-Turkish border on the eve of the US invasion. Thirteen-year-old Satellite—so named for his ability to install satellite dishes for villagers desperate for news—is the leader of the village children, organizing minefield clearing operations and arranging trade-ins for unexploded mines. He falls for an orphan girl named Agrin, who is traveling with her apparently clairvoyant brother, both of whom are caring for a mysterious three-year-old whose connection to them becomes apparent as the war draws closer. Like the Kurdish director's previous films, A Time for Drunken Horses and Turtles Can Fly, this film is a powerful testament to the continued oppression of a people. It won more than a dozen prizes at various film festivals in 2004 and 2005.

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Dir. Rory Kennedy, 2007
Built by the British in the 1960s, the prison in the Iraqi city of Abu Ghraib became a torture center for interrogating and murdering political dissidents under Saddam Hussein's Baathist government. After the US invasion in 2003, the American military began using the facility to detain prisoners of war and suspected terrorists. The following year, journalists exposed widespread abuse there, adding a new chapter to the prison's dark history and significantly impacting international attitudes about the war. Through interviews with perpetrators, witnesses, and victims, director Rory Kennedy seeks to reconstruct the stories behind the now-iconic abuse photos that emerged from Abu Ghraib. The film premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and aired on HBO a month later, subsequently winning an Emmy.


The Situation

Dir. Philip Haas, 2006
While covering the invasion in Iraq in 2003, American reporter Anna (Connie Nielsen) finds herself caught in a love triangle between a CIA operative (Damian Lewis) and an Iraqi photographer (Mido Manada), whose differing perspectives on the war challenge her loyalties. But when an American soldier throws an Iraqi boy off a bridge (a scene inspired by actual events), it sets off a scandal that polarizes the nation, putting Anna in grave danger as she rushes to cover the story. Nothing is as it seems in the conflict that has become so incomprehensible that the Iraqis only refer to bitterly it as "the situation." The story was written by journalist Wendell Steavenson, based on her experiences covering the war in Iraq for Slate.


Gunner Palace

Dir. Michael Tucker, 2004
One of the very first documentaries to present a nuanced view of what was happening on the ground in Iraq, Gunner Palace advertised itself as "the war you haven't seen on the news," and it delivered on the promise. Director Michael Tucker spent several months in 2003 and 2004 embedded with an Army artillery unit that had taken up residence in the bombed-out remnants of one of Saddam Hussein's son Uday's pleasure palaces, offering a sympathetic but frank perspective of American soldiers trying to contend with circumstances they'd never anticipated, such as training Iraqi soldiers, keeping peace among warring factions, and most of all, surviving to see another day.

Iraq in Fragments

Dir. James Longley, 2005
Director James Longley's three-act documentary is a tapestry-like exploration of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish responses to the first two years of the American occupation, told from the perspective of ordinary Iraqis. Iraq in Fragments' structure highlights the country's sectarian tensions, but the film resolutely avoids editorializing, instead seeking to capture the voices of regular human beings living in an endlessly wartorn land. The film was widely praised for its visual richness, winning multiple awards at Sundance and receiving a nomination at the 2006 Academy Awards, where it lost to An Inconvenient Truth.

Three Kings

Dir. David O. Russell, 1999
Marking a significant shift in direction from his earlier quirky comedies, director David O. Russell's Three Kings offered a strikingly strange and original take on America's role in the first Gulf War. The story of three American soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube) seeking to seize a cache of looted Kuwaiti gold from an Iraqi bunker after the end of the war, the film also serves as an indictment of American policy in the region. As a result of its unusual subject matter and experimental techniques, not to mention the salacious stories that emerged from the set, Three Kings was prominently featured in two gossipy histories of the indie film "revolution"—Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures and Sharon Waxman's Rebels on the Backlot.

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