Two former MTV producers have accomplished what the entire mainstream media thus far has not: they’ve captured the real life and times of the Iraqi people.
They didn’t do it alone, however. Producers Eric Manes and Martin Kunert sent 150 digital cameras into Iraq this April with very simple instructions: “Videotape your neighborhood, shopping area, where you live and work, pray, relax, and play” and interview “people who have the most meaning in your life.” (See the entire instructions here.)
The cameras were passed on to friends and family members, and the handheld devices eventually made their way to the Shia south and later to the Kurdish north. Thousands of Iraqis turned in over 450 hours of footage, and the results surprised even Manes and Kunert.
The finished product, Voices of Iraq, is a taut 75-minute documentary, opening today in limited release in ten cities. (For listings, click here.) Infused throughout with an Iraqi hip-hop soundtrack, the briskly edited film is hands-off in letting ordinary Iraqis drive the storyline. That it won’t realistically have much of an impact on the election is the only disappointing thing about this film.
Groundbreaking and instantly compelling, VOI is sort of the anti-Michael Moore film. There’s no narration, no heavy-handed editing. And whereas the man from Flint started with his premise and assembled his film to support it, the only goal when making VOI was to emulate the producers’ trailblazing MTV show Fear, which gave cameras to everyday youths who filmed themselves at supposedly haunted locations. Defying expectations, the show was a hit.
Not knowing what to expect, the producers partnered with actor and Gulf War veteran Archie Drury, who personally distributed cameras in Iraq this April. When they started getting back initial footage not long after, the situation was less than ideal, yet nowhere near as bleak as the media portrayed.
Life in Iraq is normal. Maybe not normal by American or European standards, but certainly for a country barely out from under the thumb of a bloodthirsty tyrant.
Throughout VOI, kids are seen being kids: laughing, playing, teasing, roughhousing. Iraqis are seen being silly: an adolescent boy doing what could only be described as a strange solo dance, an actor who filmed himself taking a shower, and policemen making bizarre sound effects and goofy faces. And boys being boys: young men returning to college last month hitting on pretty girls with lame come ons, such as “The most beautiful girl, come here” and “Come here, I just want to talk to you.”
Interspersed with that were painful reminders of Iraq’s all-too-recent savage history, including former victims of Saddam’s torture having a conversation over dinner and video of Shia in the south recovering skeletal remains from mass graves. Though a few longed for the “stability” and “security” of Saddam’s regime, no one seen in VOI was under any delusions about the despot.
During Saddam’s pretrial hearing, Iraqis were shooting in celebration, and one man talked about how he danced when he heard the news of the tyrant’s capture.
Iraqis’ elation at Saddam’s demise should not come as a surprise. The most chilling moments of the film were four brief clips from official Fedayeen (Saddam’s paramilitary) videotape footage: a blindfolded and handcuffed man thrown from the top of a building, falling to his death; a boy’s hand being chopped off; two blindfolded young men, boys really, sitting on a bomb as it detonates; and a beheading.
Lasting no more than 15 seconds and completely silent, those images will haunt even the most jaded for days.
This side of evil, the real enemy of VOI is the mainstream media. Armed with footage that somehow eluded the multimillion-dollar big news operations, the $500,000 film occasionally throws up newspaper headlines—only to show how woefully wrong they were.
From the movie:
- “We can’t work on the street anymore...” quoting the Newsweek bureau chief, 4/13/04, which is placed over images of Iraqis casually strolling down the street.
- “Fear of Militants Forces Ordinary Iraqis to Stay Home,” San Francisco Chronicle, 5/16/04—over video of Iraqis packed into an outdoor marketplace.
- “Iraq may survive, but the dream is dead,” New York Times, 5/7/04, which is seen over footage of wedding celebrants jumping for joy, and followed by shots of exuberant youths rejoicing their college graduation.
Iraqis are nobody’s fools. They are far savvier and more sophisticated than most would realize, particularly the paternalistic, peacenik left, which thought Iraqis were better off under Saddam. VOI has ordinary Iraqis talking about Saddam’s commonly-known harboring of al Qaeda operatives and how foreign governments don’t want Iraq’s democracy to succeed and are thus helping funnel terrorists into the country.
The Iraqi people understand democracy, but more important, they want democracy. Who knows exactly what form or shape their eventual government will take, but if the ordinary folks featured in VOI have any say, it will be a free society. Throughout, Iraqis define freedom as having a secular government, freedom of speech, or the freedom to partake in technological pleasures like the Internet and cell phones.
For those who read the above and want to label the project a partisan hack job without ever seeing it, many in VOI’s team are Democrats. (What else would you expect from Hollywood types?) And there are several scenes where Iraqis express diametrically opposing views.
That politics was being openly discussed—on camera, no less—is perhaps the greatest indicator of how much times have changed.
One extended scene showed nuanced political disagreements within one family, spats not that unlike what one would find inside a typical American household. The clan’s pre-teen son, Hasooni, bright and smiling, lacked any confusion or inner conflict, though.
When asked what he “wants to be in the future,” Hasooni exclaims, “American.”
Joel Mowbray (email@example.com) is author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America’s Security.