Dr. Riyadh continues to devote his life to serving his country and the people of his neighborhood. His priority is the Adhamiya Free Clinic, where he provides medical treatment and humanitarian assistance to people from all parts of Baghdad.
The security situation in Baghdad grows worse everyday that passes. Dr. Riyadh describes the situation in Baghdad as a civil war. Militias control the streets. His family can’t travel. Three people on his block were assassinated last week.
Last January Dr. Riyadh’s nephew Mustafa was assassinated outside the home of Yasir, the boy who was kidnapped in the film. Mustafa was nineteen years old and studying to be a doctor. His body was riddled with bullets. He was a very special young man and his death has devastated the family, including Dr. Riyadh. Mustafa called me from medical school two weeks before he was killed to ask my advice for applying for scholarships. His death is a tragedy — and just one of the daily tragedies happening in Iraq each day.
Last fall I got a call from Dr. Riyadh. He told me he was on his way to help victims of the earthquake in Pakistan. I am still amazed by that — he lives in Baghdad in a constant state of war and is compelled to help people in other countries. Dr. Riyadh has also been working in Amman, Jordan with Doctors Without Borders to establish a hospital to treat Iraqi victims of violence.
Although a new set of elections has been held in Iraq since filming ended, they were for the national government and Dr. Riyadh has not run for office again since I filmed him. The Iraqi Islamic Party did participate in the national elections and won many seats in parliament. Dr. Riyadh remains active in the local district council and Baghdad city council.
On a happier note, Dr. Riyadh’s oldest daughter was married last month. I sent her a wedding dress. Because there is no mail service in Iraq, I had to ship it to Amman, Jordan, where it was then picked up and hand-delivered to her in Baghdad. The dress had to travel along the treacherous road from Amman to Baghdad via Fallujah. Now that I have been put on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “threat list” since completing the film, I imagine the large box containing the ivory dress and veil were considered highly suspicious and tracked closely as it traveled through the Middle East.
Screening My Country, My Country
The film has been embraced universally. Audiences identify with the struggle of Dr. Riyadh and his family. I have received very positive responses from Iraqis, and the U.S. military has asked me to show the film at war colleges. Dr. Riyadh and his family are very happy with the film — and that is the highest complement. Dr. Riyadh had one complaint about the film. He asked me why, with all the suffering of the Iraqi people, did I waste time showing his sister-in-law trying to kill a fly?
People always ask two questions: Were you scared and how did you get all the access? In many ways, the answer to both questions go together. Iraq is a dangerous place to work. You go there with the knowledge that you might not make it out alive. With that said, I was compelled as an artist and an American to make this film. As we know, for better or worse, belief goes a long way, and my belief in the film was stronger than my fear about making it. I think many people allowed me access because they knew the risk I was taking. They respected what I was doing, and that I was putting my life on the line to make the film.
I am working on a new documentary that will be part of a trilogy that begins with My Country, My Country. I am still working on the access, so I can’t speak about it in great detail.
The next project will also look at America post-9/11, and will also be a cinéma vérité documentary. I shoot cinéma vérité, in which events and actions unfold while filming, because this approach allows me to tell stories that are grounded in the very real stakes of peoples lives. In these kinds of films you don’t know where the story is going or what the characters will do. The drama unfolds in front of the camera. Capturing the struggles and conflicts that individuals face as they confront them, reveals lessons about the human condition and the social, economic and political forces that we confront.
I also believe this storytelling approach challenges audiences to question their perceptions and privileges. Often documentaries are made by the privileged, representing the less privileged, and are presented back to the privileged. The subjects are often represented as “other,” far removed from the audience, thus replicating the status quo. I want audiences to feel invested, connected, and implicated. In the beginning of My Country, My Country, Dr. Riyadh is shown talking to detainees at Abu Ghraib, including a nine-year-old boy. I want American audiences to feel the shame of this scene, not pity.
Since finishing My Country, My Country, I’ve been placed on the Department of Homeland Security’s terror watch list. Returning to the U.S. in August 2006 after screenings 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 400 points — the highest the Department of Homeland Security assigns. Upon arrival at JFK airport, I was again escorted by security to a holding area until Homeland Security gave permission for me to enter the country. I gave the security guards DVDs of the film.
—Laura Poitras, October 2006