POV: What inspired you to make the film?
Laura Poitras: I read an article in The New Yorker by George Packer in which he described this solider in the military whose job during the day was to be a mayor of a town, and who was busting down the doors of Iraqis at night; in that article, Packer asked the solider, “Isn’t there a contradiction between your daytime job and your nighttime job?” It was that contradiction that I wanted to capture on film.
The film was motivated by a sense despair about what was happening in Iraq, and by the kind of polarized debate that was going on here in the United States. I wanted to understand the situation on the ground and from the position of the people who are in this war, and I felt that to understand it from that perspective would shed light from all political perspectives.
POV: Why didn’t you film the soldier’s story that you refer to from The New Yorker article? Why did you focus on Dr. Riyadh?
Poitras: I think in order to understand this war, we need to understand Iraq and we need to understand it from the perspective of Iraqis. Everything about their culture is different from our culture: their religion, their family structure, etc. I think we learn about those differences and what Iraqi values are in the course of the film. That perspective needed to be told, and I was very fortunate that Dr. Riyadh would let me into his house to do that.
Dr. Riyadh’s story is a really great way to gain insight into understanding the contradictions of the war. What does it mean to invade a country to bring democracy? It’s a huge contradiction. He’s a person who’s caught in that web and trying to do the right thing, and ultimately I think that the contradictions of this endeavor led to a very tragic outcome for him personally and for many of the people — both from the U.S. military and from the United Nations — who are trying to implement this effort. It is also a film that I think will challenge political perspectives from both sides, because it really is, in a sense, a celebration of democracy, and at the same time it’s a critique of the occupation.
The U.S. is now very isolated in its occupation of Iraq. All the people who run the embassy live inside a compound that they never leave; they never have interaction with Iraqis, they never go to restaurants, they never eat local food, they never go into private homes. The fact is that the U.S. is trying to occupy or bring democracy to this country with very little knowledge of the country and the people, and I felt that I couldn’t tell the story without telling that perspective.
At the same time, I didn’t want to lose the larger perspective. I wanted to have a juxtaposition of the personal story of this man and this family with the story of the U.S. military, which is really calling the shots. I want that tension between the people who are making decisions and the people whose lives are impacted by those decisions.
POV: How did you find Dr. Riyadh and the other characters in your film?
Poitras: My initial access point was through the United States military and their civil affairs division, who are in charge of non-combat operations including things like elections, government supports, infrastructure, etc. Once I was in Iraq, I met Dr. Riyadh, and as soon as I met him I knew that this was a character who could take me on a journey that could tell the story that I wanted to tell.
I met him while he was conducting an inspection of Abu Ghraib. He allowed me to film him and he took me into his house at great risk to himself and his family. The second time I filmed him he was at the free medical clinic he runs in the Adhamiya neighborhood in Baghdad. People come to the clinic and they bring all their physical problems, but they also use it as a place to talk about the occupation and to talk about their problems. Dr. Riyadh hears all this, and so filming him was a fantastic way to capture the bigger picture in the daily life of Iraqis. As a storyteller, I really believe in telling stories through human drama. When we are inundated with casualty statistics and suicide car bombs, the information gets lost on us; I think by following one man and one family over the course of a year, it gives viewers greater understanding of the situation in Iraq.
POV: What did your subjects make of your status as an American woman in Iraq?
Poitras: I think the fact that I was a woman working alone in Iraq was essential for the access that I got in making this film. You read about how men are not allowed to even meet the women in a lot of Arab homes, but because I was a woman, Dr. Riyadh’s family just took me in. I slept at their house, I stayed over there for days and they were incredibly open with me. I think my being a woman also helped with access to the military; it was easy to work with me because I was working alone and I was perceived as less threatening.
POV: Why did Dr. Riyadh agree to be filmed? Was there more risk to his life because he was filmed?
Poitras: Dr. Riyadh is a profoundly religious man. I think he felt that if I was willing to take this risk that I was taking, that he would be willing to take me into his home. He wants the world to know about the situation in Iraq and about the suffering of Iraqis, and that’s why he was risking his life. He has gotten death threats, his colleagues have been assassinated; he serves on a local council and nine of the other members have been killed. The reality is that people who participate in the political process are assassinated on a regular basis, particularly Sunnis, so he’s a profoundly courageous man and a profoundly religious man and I think he does what he thinks is right. He makes choices based on what he believes in, and I think he believed in the importance of telling the story of Iraqis to American audiences.
POV: As a filmmaker, how did you feel about the fact that by agreeing to be filmed, Dr. Riyadh was putting himself in potential risk?
Poitras: Being a documentarian, any time you feel that you’re going to impact your subjects’ lives, the stakes are particularly high. Of course, I was concerned that filming Dr. Riyadh and his family could potentially put them at more risk. When Dr. Riyadh told his family, “I’m bringing this American home,” they said, “Great, Dad. You’re on the local government, you’re running around, you’re talking to Americans, you’re talking to the military, and now you’re going to bring home an American into the house?”
So letting me film him really raised the stakes. Dr. Riyadh was already taking certain risks; he was already a public figure because of his participation in the political process and was already a target, no doubt. I think my filming him potentially increased the threat to him. At the same time, Dr. Riyadh lives in Adhamiya, which is a very Baathist, Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad. There are definitely insurgent activities going on there, but he’s still alive and he’s alive for a reason. It’s because he’s protected, he’s from this neighborhood, and he is respected; the insurgents know exactly where he is and they haven’t touched him. That gave me a sense of protection — to work with him and be in his home — because this was a man who commanded respect.
At the same time there’s no doubt that this film potentially puts Dr. Riyadh at risk. I think he will be somewhat protected because he is so anti-occupation. The insurgents know that he doesn’t want the U.S. occupation to continue even though he’s still participating in the political process. But many members from his political party — the Iraqi Islamic Party — have been assassinated for participating in the election, so he really is caught between the more militant part of the Sunni population and the part that is trying to work within the political process.
POV: You were obviously very committed to the filming of My Country, My Country. Tell us about the risks you yourself faced by filming in the middle of a war zone.
Poitras: I felt compelled to make this film. I really believed in it, and I think my belief outweighed my fear. Belief really does go a long way, for better or for worse.
I risked my life to make this film because I felt that I had a certain skill set that could be brought to bear on understanding this war in terms of being able to tell the story of the war in images, through people. The news was never going to do it; the news would always be headlines about statistics and bombs going off, and I knew I could be patient and tell a story with the subtlety of things unfolding, which I believe has a greater impact in creating understanding. Hopefully, that’s one of the things the film accomplishes.
There’s a war going on. A lot of people have died, a lot of people will continue to die, and this is a war that was started by my country. I felt that my life wasn’t any more valuable or precious than anyone else’s; it was worth taking that risk to tell this story.
I was in Iraq for eight months. I left once. While there, I traveled alone and my protection was the protection of whomever I was traveling with. So that meant if I was traveling with a doctor, I didn’t have any protection. In Baghdad I went around with him and I always wore a headscarf because you don’t try to stand out as a westerner in Baghdad. Then when I was with the Australian private security guards, they had guns and they were probably as much of a target as they were protection. I also traveled with the U.S. military.
I felt that my trust in the doctor and in wanting to tell the story would protect me better than having a bunch of guys with guns around me. There were people who knew that I was at the doctor’s house. I was at the clinic on a regular basis; word got out that I was there and nothing ever happened, and I think it was because the insurgents knew that I was trying to tell the story of Iraqis and to take that home and to share that with the rest of the world. I think people felt that was something to be respected.
POV: What did you learn about democracy in Iraq and what did you learn about America?
Poitras: To witness Dr. Riyadh’s profound courage, the priorities that he lives with and his values, and then to come back here to the U.S., where you wouldn’t know that there is a war, and see what people care about and what people spend energy on… a lot of it really seems very irrelevant.
We say we went to Iraq to bring democracy, and I think looking at the film, we see how much we can learn from the Iraqis in terms of democracy, in terms of serving your country, in terms of sacrifice. Those are things that I think we’ve lost sight of. If you look the voting statistics in Iraq, the turnout there was higher than the turnout here in U.S. elections. In Iraq, 58% of the people showed up to vote after they’d been told that they would be killed and they would be videotaped if they voted; that’s a profoundly moving testament to people’s courage and sacrifice and willingness to risk their lives for what they believe in.
POV: What is the significance of the title My Country, My Country?
Poitras: The title of the film — My Country, My Country — is, in Arabic, the opening words of the Iraqi national anthem. In the film, when Dr. Riyadh’s daughter comes home after voting, she’s singing the national anthem. It’s a beautiful and profound moment in the film. The phrase My Country, My Country also makes me think about the fact that it’s my country that’s invaded Iraq, and it’s my country that’s continued to occupy it. I felt that we should understand what this country — my country — is doing in the world. There’s a tension about whose country it is and about these two countries whose histories will be intertwined for the foreseeable future.