Iraqis line up to cast their vote in the January 2005 elections.
Is it possible to conduct democratic elections in a war zone? Can a foreign military force bring Western-style democracy to the Muslim world? For U.S. military and diplomatic planners in Iraq, the answer to both questions has been a resolute “yes.” For Iraqis, these contradictions have led to tragic consequences as political uncertainty and mounting violence continue to dominate daily life more than three years after the U.S. invasion.
The state of democracy, both Iraq’s and the United States’, is the focus of Laura Poitras’s documentary, My Country, My Country, an unforgettable journey into the heart of war-ravaged Iraq in the months leading up to the January 2005 elections. Symbolized by fingers marked with purple ink, the 2005 elections posed challenges to all sides of the debate about the war. Despite death threats from terrorists, voter turnout in Iraq was higher than in the U.S., and in spite of claims that the elections were an Iraqi process, U.S. military planners oversaw most aspects of them.
Iraqi men dance in the streets on Election Day.
Working and traveling alone in Iraq during a time when few Western journalists ventured from their compounds and bodyguards, filmmaker Laura Poitras captures the war and the elections from the inside. Her protagonist is Dr. Riyadh (last name withheld for security reasons), an Iraqi doctor, father of six, devout Sunni Muslim, and political candidate in Iraq’s largest Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party. An outspoken critic of the U.S. occupation, he is equally passionate about building democracy in Iraq.
Poitras, whose Peabody Award winning Flag Wars companion website » Flag Wars (made with Linda Goode Bryant) kicked off the 2003 season of POV, spent eight months in Iraq, from June 2004 to February 2005, filming My Country, My Country. (The title comes from the Iraqi National Anthem.) Inspired by a New Yorker article written by George Packer about the first months of the war (“War After the War”), she set out to make a documentary that would capture the war from the perspective of the people whose lives were on the line.
With no contacts in Iraq, Poitras sent an email to the U.S. military requesting access to film the military’s national-building efforts in Iraq. After reviewing Flag Wars, a two-star general from the U.S. Army’s Civil Affairs Command gave her permission. The military allowed her unusual reign to film inside the heavily fortified “Green Zone,” the brains of the U.S. occupation.
Filmmaker Laura Poitras first met her protagonist, Dr. Riyadh, on a visit to Abu Ghraib, the U.S. military prison west of Baghdad.
Once in Iraq, Poitras broadened her scope. She met Dr. Riyadh at Abu Ghraib prison while he was conducting an inspection two months after the abuse photographs were made public. “When I met Dr. Riyadh, I knew immediately he would take me on a journey that would reveal the complexities and emotional toll of the war,” she says. “Filming him as he spoke with detainees — children, old men, many held for over a year without charge — and negotiated on their behalf with U.S. soldiers, was heartbreaking.”
Dr. Riyadh practices medicine at a free clinic in the volatile anti-American Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya in Baghdad. Born and raised in Adhamiya, he is a respected leader there. In a country ruled by tribal bonds and loyalties, local residents turn to him for help in all areas of their lives. He not only ministers to their physical illnesses but tries to intercede on their behalf. In the film, he leads an inspection of Abu Ghraib, where Adhamiya residents have been taken; he negotiates with American military officers over the fate of Fallujah refugees and he helps a relative arrange ransom for a kidnapped son.
Dr. Riyadh firmly believes in democracy, but in one founded in Islamic beliefs. He argues that secular democracies have not achieved justice. Imprisoned by Saddam Hussein for his criticism of the Baathist Party, Dr. Riyadh is a member of the largest Sunni religious political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party. Determined to help his people, he decides to be a candidate on the party’s ticket for Baghdad Provincial Council.
My Country, My Country finds the pulse of a country thrown violently into chaos. On the streets and roads of Iraq, a constant background noise of helicopters, explosions, gunfire, TV reports of suicide bombings and fractious opinions fill daily life. From ebullient Kurdish Peshmerga militia who celebrate their new autonomy — foreshadowing civil war — to workers at voter-registration sites who seem as fearful as they are hopeful, to the tumultuous headquarters of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Islamic Party, Poitras discovers a far more precarious and tragic situation than imagined in debates about the war. On the ground, the stakes are life and death. U.S. military trainers brief American soldiers about the growing anti-American sentiment. And many Iraqis, for all their differences, clearly share one common reality: They are as afraid of U.S. soldiers as they are of suicide bombers.
Dr. Riyadh, a father of six and a devout Sunni Muslim, ran for the Baghdad provincial council as a member of Iraq’s largest Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party.
For Dr. Riyadh the dangers come from all sides. As a moderate who supports civil — not armed — resistance, he is threatened by terrorists who want the political process to fail. As a vocal critic of the U.S. occupation — practicing what he calls “civil resistance” — he is designated on the C.I.A.’s watch list as “anti-American.” Dr. Riyadh’s situation and the bleak prospects of a unified Iraq are captured in My Country, My Country‘s intimate, haunting portrait of Riyadh’s family life. His wife and grown children take delight in teasing him about his political activities, all the while discussing with gallows humor whether or not they will vote.
With My Country, My Country, director and cinematographer Laura Poitras creates what several scholars and critics have called the definitive documentary about the war in Iraq. “Although the film focuses on the January 2005 elections, it is a broader story about U.S. foreign policy post-9/11,” she says. “The use of pre-emptive military force and the goal of implementing democracy in the Middle East mark a radical shift in U.S. policy and world politics. I felt compelled to document this war and its consequences.”
“Since completing My Country, My Country, I’ve been placed on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) watch list,” explains Poitras. “Returning to the U.S. in August 2006 after a screening in Europe, I was detained at two airports. In Vienna, I was escorted out of the terminal to a police inspection area and was notified by security that my ‘threat rating’ was the highest the Department of Homeland Security assigns,” she says. “Upon arrival at JFK airport, I was yet again escorted by security to a holding area until the DHS authorized my entrance into the United States.”
My Country, My Country features an original music score by world-renowned Iraqi singer and composer Kadhum Al Sahir, the top-selling singer in the Arab world today. Exiled from Iraq since the 1990s — first by Saddam Hussein, now by the security situation — Al Sahir composed “Oh My Country” for the film after Poitras approached him backstage at a rare concert appearance in Detroit.
Funding for My Country, My Country was provided by ITVS, the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, POV | American Documentary, Inc., the Wellspring Foundation, the Robert and Joyce Menschel Family Foundation and the Appleman Foundation.