Voices of Iraq

I’ve been involved in some other writing projects this week and, thus, have not had time to feed the blog. One of those writing projects involves revisiting my work on documentaries about the war in Iraq, and with that in mind I watched the 2004 documentary, Voices of Iraq (IMDB), in which a group of American producers distributed 150 digital video cameras to Iraqi citizens who then passed them throughout the country. By the time the footage was compiled, over 1,500 Iraqis had filmed aspects of their daily lives, which was then compiled into a two-hour documentary. In fact, in the end credits the director’s creidt goes to the “People of Iraq.”

The film was made in the summer of 2004, around the time that the first round of elections were taking place, but also at the same time that the Abu Ghraib scandal had begun to break. Despite, the negative effects of the war, we are presented with euphoric images of family dinners, jubilant (male and female) students, and and happily employed workers. All of the people who address the cameras talk readily about their newly acquired freedom to speak against the government. These stories are told in a video verite style that often places emphasis on the amateur filmmaking techniques (clumsy zooms, out of focus shots, poorly framed shots) in order to emphasize their “authenticity.”

Of course things aren’t so simple, as we all know by now. Documentaries such as Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland, which were filmed at around the same historical moment tell a much different story, one that conveyed many of the divisions within the country that have complicated the Bush war plan. The film itself is a relatively transparent attempt to counteract many of these criticisms, with gloomy American newspaper headlines contratsed with the cheerful images that have been presented in the film, which raises some important questions about how much control the “people of Iraq” really had over the degree to which their stories were organized in the final film, as this Village Voice review points out. Because the Iraqis in the film seem to have been prompted to address a U.S. audience, it’s difficult to determine whether some of the interviews might be fabricated and even more difficult to determine what footage was left on the (purely metaphorical) cutting room floor.

For these reasons alone, the film should be treated with more than a little skepticism, but it’s difficult not to appreciate the upbeat images. And I’d agree with the Village Voice’s Joshua Land that “It’s certainly important for American leftists to consider that many Iraqis have benefited from the war that we oppose.” At the same time, the film offers little historical context or explanation for the conditions in Iraq both before and after Saddam Hussein’s fall. In this sense, to suggest, as Jonathan Curiel does, that Voices of Iraq conveys the situation in Iraq “in all its complexity” and “conflicting viewpoints” is misguided at best. I’ll admit that it’s relatively easy now to look back at something like Voices of Iraq and to fault the film for its euphoric presentation of the war (and I’ve done a little of that), but I’m intrigued by the effectiveness of the film’s appeal, particularly through its carefully crafted ideology of authenticity.

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