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October 13, 2006
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NOW Transcript - Show 241
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Transcript - October 13, 2006

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW...

How bad are things in Iraq? The spy communities answer was classified - the national intelligence estimate—but the bits and pieces that have been leaked say the Iraq war has encouraged Islamic extremists and inspired more terrorist acts. So how does that play out for the millions of Iraqi citizens? American filmmaker Laura Poitras wanted to investigate that untold story. Working alone, Poitras spent eight dangerous months in Iraq, traveling throughout the country, even living on and off with an Iraqi family. It's an amazing story of courage and fear as a family of 8 struggles to maintain hope amidst bombs, kidnappings, power outages, and military occupation. Poitras' film, "my country, my country" will have its broadcast debut right here on pbs on the documentary series "POV" on October 25th.

Now on pbs.

BRANCACCIO: An American filmmaker goes to Iraq, to capture life in wartime from an Iraqi family's point of view...

POITRAS: Then he called me and said; my nephew's been kidnapped. And what we didn't know if it was political. Cause if it was political then he's clearly targeted and I'm clearly targeted.

BRANCACCIO: Her film may be finished, but her story isn't.

POITRAS: Since the film's been completed, I'm getting held at airports not only was I on a threat list, but that my point score was the highest that there is.

BRANCACCIO: The director of "My country My country," Laura Poitras. Laura thanks for doing this.

POITRAS: It's a pleasure to be here.

BRANCACCIO: What pushed you to pack up and go to Baghdad?

POITRAS: I was prompted by an article in THE NEW YORKER by George Packer. I—it was the fall of 2003, and I was reading the papers, and things were just really getting bad. And he captured this—something that I wasn't hearing in the news about the situation, on the ground, from the perspective of the people whose lives were really at risk. And it was not an ideological, political—presentation, but something that was very human, and very tragic. And I just—I was in the middle of reading it and I said; Okay, that's it. I'm gonna do this.

BRANCACCIO: You're gonna find out what is the on-the-ground reality for people living through this period.

POITRAS: Yeah. I mean, I think, as Americans, we should understand the war and the consequences from the human perspective and its toll, and not just be reading the front pages of, you know, body counts. And I just felt absolutely compelled. I mean it's a hard thing to describe but just—absolutely compelled to do it. And then once I got there, I realized that I needed to find an Iraqi perspective to tell the story. That I couldn't tell it from just a US perspective or from a military perspective. But that to—if we're gonna understand this war as Americans we need to understand what it means for Iraqis.

BRANCACCIO: So tell me, how did you come across this amazing central figure in the documentary?

POITRAS: It was actually really amazing. It was—it was inspection of Abu Ghraib prison and it was two months after the photographs were public. So it was not easy to get access. But I managed to get access and I was filming this inspection, and Doctor Riyadh was leading—an inspection for Baghdad City Council and he's a doctor. So he was talking to people about how long they'd been there. Their medical problems. And as we continued to—to talk to detainees, we were there for about two hours, he comes across a group of juveniles.

BRANCACCIO: In fact, he comes across a kid who says he's nine years old.

RIYADH: Hold on a minute. Peace be upon you. How many are there? Where are you from?

CHILD: Kadhimiya

RIYADH: How old are you?

CHILD: I'm 9 years old.

VOICE: You are nine years old!

CHILD: I'm only a child.

RIYADH: This is type of punishment.


RIYADH: This type of punishment. They can't bear it because they are children.

U.S. MILITARY OFFICIAL: We have looked through every one of these files. These juveniles are dangerous.

BRANCACCIO: So under normal legal procedure—the right of habeas corpus means they can't put you in a prison and then you suddenly disappear. What is he sort of trying to document people who are there?

POITRAS: Yeah, he's trying to get them out. I mean there are people that have been held there for over a year who no charges have been filed against them. So he's working as an advocate on their behalf, and speaking, obviously, to the military in trying to get people released.

RIYADH: Pray that God will help us. We are an occupied country with a puppet government. What do you expect?

VOICE: By God that is right.

BRANCACCIO: What we see in that clip, Dr. Riyadh is no passionate booster for the US policy in Iraq. And he talks about the 'puppet government.' He's what? He's a member of the Sunni minority?

POITRAS: He's a Sunni doctor. He's a member of the Iraq Islamic Party which is the largest Sunni political party—in—in Iraq. And he's definitely against the US occupation, but he's also someone who believes in democracy and representation. So he is participating in political life. So he embodies the contradictions of this war.

BRANCACCIO: And you saw what? His leadership quality?

POITRAS: His leadership quality. His—his ability to talk across a fence, to be talking to detainees and then turn around and—and look at the military and say; this is why this is wrong. And—and he was just really compelling as a character.

POITRAS: And what he said—Abu Ghraib—he says, "We want the world to know what's happening." And I think he had a sense that I might be able to show the world, to capture something and bring it back. And he—he then, after Abu Ghraib, when we were there, he then invited me to his medical clinic.

RIYADH: Open your hands. Close. If there were elections would you take part?

WOMAN: Of course we would.

RIYADH: Would you participate willingly, or by force? I mean, voluntarily?

WOMAN: Well, it depends on the candidates.

RIYADH: What if someone like me ran in the election, would you vote for me?

WOMAN: Someone like you? You'd be the first person I'd vote for. I'd bring the whole district to vote for you. You're one of us. But we would never vote for an outsider.

BRANCACCIO: It's—it's a really heroic act to let you do any of this.

POITRAS:It actually it really is. I mean, he's somebody who's—everything he does is motivated by his sense of duty and his sense of faith. And he, for whatever reasons, t—trusted me and let me in. I mean, it was a risk to take in an American woman into your house. But the fact that I was working alone, that I didn't' have any ent—I mean—I was doing my own camera work, my own sound work, I think made it possible for me to get into places that I never would've gotten into—otherwise.

BRANCACCIO: Now Laura, you speak Arabic?

POITRAS: I don't speak Arabic.

BRANCACCIO: So, I mean, you're alone doing all your camerawork. How do you pull that off?

POITRAS: You know, that m—the job in that kind of situation is to make sure you're staying on-story. And I knew that when I was with the family—and—What are they talking—you—you know that you just filmed that. That this is gonna be really an important moment. And I just needed to be there to capture it. And that I knew I was gonna get the story.

BRANCACCIO: One was a glimpse of life in Iraq. Someone goes to their mosque to pray and this is the story they come back with.

DAUGHTER: What happened?

MOTHER: As we were leaving, we heard a blast outside. The next thing we knew, all these men had entered the women's prayer area shounting, "Stay inside, it's the Americans." The Americans outside were shooting people, and the people shot back.

DAUGHTER: They were shooting ordinary people? Just like that?

MOTHER: They were shooting at the building. Bricks fell and hit people. Those who were hit just dropped.

DAUGHTER: Oh my dear!

MOTHER: 19 were wounded, and 5 or 6 were killed.

DAUGHTER: People who saw us coming home started praying for us. There was blood on the street.

DAUGHTER: Mom, what kind of life is this? Just stay home! No mosque, no prayers.

BRANCACCIO: Presumably, the US military was trying to get bad guys or something at this mosque.

POITRAS: They were looking for—there are guns that they didn't find. And—and raided—I—I mean, you have to realize w—what it means—I mean, for men—soldiers—American soldiers to enter the women's part of a mosque is—was a huge crossing of the line that really makes—you know, really makes enemies. And—and—so, this is—you know, the family went through that.

BRANCACCIO: So that's a portion of this family. The—the doctor has four daughters and two sons. But you see how an operation, a military operation on a Mosque can have a radicalizing influence.

POITRAS: Yeah, absolutely. And you have to remember, like this—I mean they're gearing up for elections. Everybody was talking about elections. And then you had this really massive military operations going on.

POITRAS: So you have to imagine how tense the situation was. Dr. Riyadh was, at that time, also deciding whether or not he was gonna participate as a candidate. And then the question becomes; Do you participate or not? And that's one of the dilemmas that—that the film looks at.

RIYADH: If you saw my name on the list, would you vote for me?

MAN: Of course I would.

RIYADH: Some lists will be coming out. You should read all the names. A relative or someone from your neighborhood might be on the candidate list.

MAN: Honestly, extremism turns me off. People should be moderate. Live and let live.

RIYADH: This issue is very important. Participation is very important. All Sunnis must participate. If you don't participate if will go to others. For example, the other coalitions, the Kurds, or the Shia.

MAN: Why shouldn't we participate? Of course we will.

RIYADH: We will not accept the exclusion of any part of any part of Iraq. Fallujah, Ramadi, they can't be excluded.

BRANCACCIO: Preparations at the official level for the elections, and then great wrestling within Dr. Riyadh's family. Both with his own conscience and with his other family members about what, exactly should—should he do.

POITRAS: Yeah. I mean his family are very concerned for his safety. I mean being in political life, is a life-threatening thing to do in Iraq. He wasn't in the 'Green Zone'; he didn't have his own security. So he was really at-risk by deciding to—to be a candidate in the elections. And I think his wife often said, you know, why don't you just be a doctor. You're doing more good there than—than you do as—as a politician.

BRANCACCIO: And you explain in the film that, officially, Dr. Riyadh's political party that he's affiliated with—


BRANCACCIO: Thinks about it, and debates it, and then decides; we're gonna boycott these elections.

POITRAS: Yeah. It sort of transpires after the attack on Falluja. The Iraqi Islamic Party pulls out of the elections. But what's interesting is that their name is still on the ballot counts.

POITRAS: Absolutely.

BRANCACCIO: So poor Dr. Riyadh, he's stuck in the middle of this.


BRANCACCIO: But he clearly believes at some level in the democratic process.

POITRAS: Yeah. Dr. Riyadh believes that Sunni's need to participate and if they don't participate then they'll be cut out of—of power. And the—the elections were to determine the government that was gonna write the constitution. So you—you're gonna have a constitution that's gonna be written without Sunni participation if they don't participate.

BRANCACCIO: So then, Election Day is approaching, and it's becoming apparent that Dr. Riyadh, himself, can't actually vote as an official of this party. But the debate in this family is whether the rest of the family should vote. And you see it play out here.

DAUGHTER: We will not vote, neve! You will not go!

WIFE: Why this decision?

RIYADH: It's my duty as the head of the household. I know the interest of the country.

WIFE: Please, there is no country! Our country was lost!


WIFE: Yes.

RIYADH: You can't say that.

WIFE: Don't tell me what I can't say. Yes, it's lost and you're the ones who lost it.

RIYADH: How did we lose it?

WIFE: Saddam destroyed it and you just sat there. It's gone, over

BRANCACCIO: Oh, the—the country is lost, Saddam destroyed it and you just sat there, she says to her husband?

POITRAS: Yeah. What she's saying is, and he's—he's a Sunni. He wasn't a Ba'athist. But what she's saying is; you let this happen, and now you're letting the US occupation then take over the country. So a sense of frustration.

BRANCACCIO: Do you think that's a widespread feeling, what she's expressing?

POITRAS: I—I think Iraqis have just been through so much really hell, historically, that I think there's a widespread sense that there's no hope, and I think that's what she's expressing.

BRANCACCIO: So someone in the family, I guess a daughter says; Life is tragedy. It's one of the central, philosophical points you see throughout the film that people seem to believe.

POITRAS: Yeah. I—I think that that's, hopefully, one of the things that the film captures. Is just this sense of aching tragedy. But you have here—you have somebody whose just trying to participate and—and serve his country. And yet it seems so doomed at every turn.

DAUGHTER: (shrieks) Mama!

WOMAN: Come inside.

WOMAN: What's going on? It sounds like a rocket fell nearby.

DAUGHTER: Where? Where?

WOMAN: Come in here. What's going on? Come, get in the storage room!

DAUGHTER: Where is the fly?

BRANCACCIO: Your film also captures the general sense of chaos. Setting aside for a moment the impending election as your cameras are rolling. You've got gunfire in the streets as—some of the family members are inside waiting it out, swatting flies. But also this horrible incident, I guess the day before the election.

POITRAS: Uh-huh.

BRANCACCIO: Where one of Dr. Riyadh's family members, the son of his brother-in-law, I guess, his nephew.

POITRAS: Uh-huh.

BRANCACCIO: Is what? Kidnapped?

POITRAS: Yeah, he's kidnapped. And it was a very scary moment because I got the call. I was supposed to actually go to Dr. Riyadh's house to film the elections and he was supposed to pick me up. And then he called me and said; my nephew's been kidnapped. And what we didn't know if it was political. Cause if it was political then he's clearly targeted and I'm clearly targeted. So it was a decision about whether or not then I go to the house. And this really—we didn't know probably for a good two days, the—who—what the motivation was of the kidnappers.

BRANCACCIO: First it sounds like a carjacking, and it was clear they wanted to kidnap the kid.

POITRAS: Yeah. It was for money. It turned out clearly that—that he was kidnapped for—for ransom. And so as—as Election Day is approaching, then you have this additional drama of their—their nephew, cousin, being held hostage.

BRANCACCIO: And you see, you're rolling when the father of the young man whose kidnapped, gets through on a—on a phone to—the kid's captors.


BROTHER: Hello. I've been trying to reach you all morning. What? Yes, yes. Yes...I'm still here...No, no. We didn't report anything to the Americans. No, no. We didn't tell them. No, no, no...Dr. Riyadh, he overheard me talking to you. Hello. He overheard me talking to you. God, we have a disaster now! My friends, how could the phone be on? Why am I so unlucky? These are such bad times. I shouldn't have said anything. I shouldn't have spoken...My boy is gone, gone, gone. I will never see Yasir again.

BRANCACCIO: So he—he thinks that the phone is hung up but it's not hung up.

POITRAS: Yeah. And then it—it symbolizes some of the tragedy because he's—he gets overheard that he talked to the Americans. And the Americans were actually very helpful. They were like; we'll—we'll try to help you. We're so sorry about your son. But the fact that it was exposed that he had had that contact, then makes his life in danger.

BRANCACCIO: So that's playing out, as I guess, a few hours later it's Election Day.

POITRAS: Yeah. And death threats have been spread throughout. Particularly this neighborhood. I mean Atamia is known for being really anti-American. It was very against these—these elections. And so they leafleted the entire neighborhood saying that if you vote you—we will kill you.

BRANCACCIO: And then, on Election Day, you even have this moment where they're discussing it. I mean there's a rumor that maybe—people who wish voters harm are videotaping whose out there at the polling place.

POITRAS: Right. Yeah. I think that, you know we—we think of this—this—the way that this—the war is talked about here, is that we're bringing democracy to Iraq. But I think one of the interesting things in the film is how we learn about what they have to teach us about democracy. And the fact that people are willing to go out and vote under these kinds of threats, I think, is very inspiring for—for those of us who are apathetic or maybe don't go out to vote because it might be raining.

RIYADH: Everyone must decide. Should you vote or not? Do you want to postpone the elections? Why? If elections take place, what are you going to do? Are you going to go or not?

WIFE: If you participate in this "great" Iraqi election, you will have no right to complain later on, because you voted!

BRANCACCIO: I've got to say that some of the very charming elements of your film is this interplay in—in Dr. Riyadh's family. I mean they do give it back to 'em, don't they?

POITRAS: Yeah. That's maybe the heart of the film is the—is the relationship between the doctor and his—and his family. Particularly wife and daughters. And they are speaking up about—his decision to be, you know, in—in politics.

BRANCACCIO: You know not—not—not powerless women as some people have a view of Iraqi women.

POITRAS: No, absolutely not. And I was very fortunate. I mean the fact—I mean I lived with Dr. Riyadh and the family. And the fact that I was a woman allowed me to capture this sort of intimate family life that wouldn't have been possible for—for a male journalist. Well, I mean, people turned out. And 58 percent, which is higher than the number of people who voted here, risked their lives to cast a vote for self-determination. So, I think, in that sense it's successful. What also happened is the Sunnis withdrew. So, then what we had is a government that wrote a Constitution without Sunni participation—

BRANCACCIO: Didn't, like, two percent of Sunnis—participate it?

POITRAS: Well, and two percent only in Fallujah. There was probably more like ten percent—overall in the country. So what you're seeing now—as a result of the Sunnis not participating, there was a Constitution that was written that strongly supported independence for the—the Kurdish north and the Shia south. And—which is something that the Sunnis were most concerned about. Because they're in a desert region without oil resources. And it looks like the country might actually divide into three which, I think, is gonna perpetuate the violence.

BRANCACCIO: Laura, you're very careful in the film to let your characters speak for themselves.

POITRAS: Uh-huh.

BRANCACCIO: And you don't pronounce a benediction or otherwise on the process. But now I wanna ask you; In this country you have politicians saying; We have to stay the course in Iraq. You have other politicians saying; We need to start winding down in that country for—in everybody's best interest. How do you come down on that?

POITRAS: I—I think any question about what to do, I think has to start with the question of; what can we do that will stop Iraqis from getting killed. And I think that as the country that's gone in, we need to take a sense of responsibility for some of the mistakes that have been made. For instance, the disbanding of the army. It's created this huge power vacuum. So I think any debate needs to look at how to stabilize the country. I personally feel that if the US presence is there, it can't be stabilized. Because there is such opposition to the US being successful in its effort to—as the film says, change the face of the Middle East. And this has created a hug—you know enormous animosity. So I don't see how the violence stops if the US continues to have a presence there.

BRANCACCIO: But let's say the US says; Alright, we're gonna draw down the forces.


BRANCACCIO: Next—over the next year they're gonna be out of there. Wouldn't that put your family at risk?

POITRAS::I mean I think that there has to be debates about how to support the country. Perhaps financially. Perhaps bringing third parties to—to—to—to provide security. That are perceived as more neutral peacekeepers rather than occupiers, which, unfortunately, is how the US is being perceived now.

BRANCACCIO: So, you leave Iraq to start putting the film together. And it's my understanding that they've been giving you trouble at the border?

POITRAS: Yeah, that's right. And while I was shooting in Baghdad, I had no problems. There was no effort to ask me what I was doing. No oversight. And now since I've—the film's been completed and I've been showing it domestically and internationally, I'm getting held at airports. So, when I was coming home from showing it in Sarajevo, I was going through Vienna. And I was paged to the—to the security. They escorted me out of the terminal into a police inspection area where I learned by talking to them that—that I was on threat list. Not only was I on a threat list, but that my point score was the highest—that there is.

BRANCACCIO: So, they're scoring people for their threat level?

POITRAS: Yeah, everyone has—everyone has a—a—a threat—a point score. And—

BRANCACCIO: And you've been honored with a really high one?

POITRAS: Yeah, at the top. Top of the list.


POITRAS: That's the thing. I don't know. It's classified. So, I don't have access to it. What I've heard is that there's been an accusation made against me. But, I'm trying to fi—figure out why. And I filed a freedom of information request.

BRANCACCIO: So, in about three years, they'll let you know. Maybe. Maybe.

POITRAS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah

BRANCACCIO: But, among the ironies here is that the American military has not been particularly opposed to this film.

POITRAS: Absolutely not. They're—they've invited me to use it as a teaching tool. I'm gonna show it to 600 majors and—to—to help them understand the Iraqi perspective of what's happening there. And—so they've embraced it

BRANCACCIO: Well Laura, thank you very much.

POITRAS: Thank you.

BRANCACCIO: Poitras's film, My Country, My Country is in theatres and gets its broadcast premiere on the PBS Documentary series, POV on Wednesday, October 25th.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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