This conversation was recorded at the studio of NOW on October 11, 2006.
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Maria Hinojosa: I’m Maria Hinojosa, senior correspondent for NOW on PBS, here on P.O.V to speak with the award-winning filmmaker, Laura Poitras, whose newest project is My Country, My Country, a documentary that focuses on the January 2005 elections in Iraq. Also here in the studio with us is journalist George Packer, author of the book The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. And actually, Laura, the story of why the two of you are here together is because you read an article of George Packer’s in the New Yorker and you said, “I’ve got to go to Iraq.”
George Packer is author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).
Laura Poitras: Yes, it was the fall of 2003 and like a lot of people, I was reading the paper every day and filled with a lot of despair about the war and the direction it was heading in. I picked up my New Yorker, started reading and George was able to do something in his article that I wasn’t reading anywhere: he was able to get outside of the ideological ping-pong of the war and how it looked for Americans who weren’t there and whose lives weren’t on the line; instead, he tried to understand it from the perspective of the people who were trying to make it work, and the tragedy of the people on the ground who were trying to make it happen.
There was one particular profile he did of a young military captain. George chronicles what the captain did in the day time, which was basically being asked to be a de facto mayor of a town, while at night he was raiding houses and terrifying women and children. George posed this question to the captain, asking “isn’t there a contradiction between your daytime job and your nighttime job?” As I read this article, the magazine dropped and I said “okay, I’m going to make a film.” I was motivated by a desire to — as a filmmaker and as an artist — to express something about this tragedy of this war. Also, as a documentarian, I wanted to understand this history and question of — which I think will be returned to for generations — of “what does this war mean?
Maria Hinojosa: After watching your film, I thought, “What am I doing here in New York? I need to be the good journalist that I am, and I need to be in Iraq doing what Laura did.” And that’s because in the first five minutes of your film I felt like I had seen three hundred hours of Iraq because you went out and you were with the real people.
Laura Poitras: What you just expressed is exactly how I felt when I was reading George’s piece. I thought he was talking about something that nobody was talking about, in a way that nobody was talking about it, and in a way that’s not about news and the endless body count; he really tried to capture the tragedy of it. I felt that as a filmmaker who does the type of work I do, that the tragedy of the situation needed to be captured and contributed, and that motivated me to make the film.
Maria Hinojosa: George, when I said to you earlier “I shouldn’t be here, I should be in Iraq reporting,” you said, “Don’t go.”
George Packer: Well, first of all, Laura came to see me before she went to Iraq and I encouraged her to go, but I had no idea that she was going to do what she did and she didn’t either, I think.
Laura Poitras: No, I didn’t.
George Packer: Laura didn’t know she was going to live, week in/week out, with an Iraqi family in a pretty embattled neighborhood in 2004, when the war was in a much more brutal stage than it had been in 2003. I don’t think any journalist has done what Laura did, and it was very risky for her and for Dr. Riyadh’s family. It paid off enormously in the film because we see Iraq in an intimate way. There is no other western journalism, probably no other journalism, period, that managed to get such an intimate view of ordinary Iraqis during the war and occupation. So I had no idea what I was going to find when I went to see her film.
Maria Hinojosa: But you think that if Laura was to try to do that now, it would be virtually impossible?
George Packer: Yes, it would be impossible. There’s absolutely no way she could do it now because first of all, I don’t think any Iraqi family would take in an American now. At the time that Laura filmed, in the second half of 2004, it was already extraordinary that an Iraqi family would allow an American woman to live with them. From what Laura’s said to me, there was some discussion about it within this family before the father persuaded his daughters to let it happen; the daughters were eventually happy about it but they were understandably wary at first. Today, it would be a death sentence for everyone involved — the Iraqi family and Laura — and I don’t think that it would have worked. They would not have escaped the sentence now because that’s how pervasive the violence is and how insecure everyone’s life is. People can’t send their children to school. People hesitate to even leave their front door. How could they have an American filmmaker staying at their house?
Laura Poitras: I could give you some anecdotes that speak to that. Dr. Riyadh is a physician, and he has two medical practices: one of them is in Adhamiya, which is a Sunni neighborhood, the other one is in Sadr City, which is a Shia neighborhood that we’ve heard of in the news. He’s had that practice in Sadr City for twenty years and now he can’t go there because of the militia checkpoints: these are the Mahdi Army checkpoints, and if they knew what neighborhood he was coming from it would be a death sentence. So Dr. Riyadh, who’s a very respected physician in Baghdad, can’t even travel within Baghdad. And his daughters, who are all either in school or professionals, can’t go to work, and they can’t leave their house. It’s really bad right now.
Maria Hinojosa: When we watch the news coverage that we’re reduced to seeing on television what we see is either lots of men who are so-called insurgents who have died or screaming, weeping women. Watching your film lets us see the children, the moms, the little kids, people living a normal life. Are those the people that you believe that are, in fact, dying in Iraq right now?
Laura Poitras: They absolutely are, and they have been as long as this occupation has gone on. I worked in the American embassy in Iraq sometimes, and I would sit next to translators, young women, who had had fifteen, twenty friends shot dead for being translators. So there’s no discrimination in terms of who is being targeted.
Maria Hinojosa: I’m sure people said to you in 2004, “Don’t go, it’s too much.” And tell us about when you said, “I can do this.”
Laura Poitras: Yes, when I sat down to talk with George, it was the very beginning of 2004, so it was before the beheading of Nicholas Berg, before the uprising in Najaf, and before the first battle of Fallujah, so things were much, much calmer. But then in the countdown before I went, these things happened: Nicholas Berg was beheaded, and the fighting really got bad. There were a lot of people who were trying to dissuade me from going. I really feel that in this country, there is a tendency to privilege American lives over Iraqi lives, and when I went to Iraq, I was very aware of the fact that I felt I could tell a story that nobody else would be able to tell because I have certain skills; I thought that I might be able to get access that nobody else would be able to get, and I felt that I should do it and that I wanted to do it.
I was really compelled as a filmmaker, as someone who’s alive in these times that will be remembered for generations in terms of their impact, and the direction this country’s headed in. There wasn’t really that much of a question for me to make this film, because there were so many lives at stake and there are so many lives that are being lost with less of a purpose or a mission that I had, the purpose of being able to document the war on the ground. So I went to Iraq with that sense of purpose.
Maria Hinojosa: So when you hear the talk about how Iraq has descended into full fledged civil war, Sunni versus Shia, and that this is a war that the United States has nothing to do with or can do nothing to help in any way, does that ring true to you?
Laura Poitras: Everybody asks that question, what can be done? I think that the only way to begin to answer that question is to respond with — I would say — two things. One is that I think that Americans have a moral obligation to Iraqis right now, and they should do anything they can to help stop the bloodshed. That should be always the first question if then we’re going to talk about what should the United States do. From my experience, it’s hard for me to see how U.S. presence there will ever bring stability, because it hasn’t in so long and because there’s such a problem of legitimacy in an occupying force that is perceived as having self interest and being infidels in this country. I believe the U.S. presence in Iraq going to be a magnet for instability.
However, I also think that it’s not a question of an immediate withdrawal, but instead, looking at what kind of solutions could allow this country to be stable and what does that mean? I don’t know what it means. I don’t know if the huge amounts of resources that we’re using toward the military could be used another way. I don’t know if there are any other countries that we haven’t alienated that could potentially be perceived as a more neutral peacekeeping force. But I do think that Americans have a responsibility to do whatever they can to help to stabilize the country.
Maria Hinojosa: George, talk about the kind of access that you got as a journalist in Iraq. I always think about you as a white man walking on the streets of Baghdad.
George Packer: Not really. I didn’t make a practice of walking around the city.
Maria Hinojosa: So how did you do what you were able to do with The Assassins’ Gate, where you were telling the story from the lives of real Iraqis?
George Packer: I drove around in a local car that looked like every other car on the street with at least one and maybe two Iraqis with me, a driver and a translator.
Maria Hinojosa: No security?
George Packer: Not until this past January. At one point I hired a guy because he needed a job, his cousin was translating for me and he had been Uday Hussein’s bodyguard [Uday Hussein was Saddam Hussein’s son and seen as his heir apparent] and I thought that would be kind of interesting to get to know this guy. So I had him tag along with us, but he was in retirement, and pretty useless as security.
This past January I had a trail car, a chase car and a guy with an AK-47 in the chase car, and a guy in my car who had a handgun. This is pretty light security; if we ran into anything serious we would not have stood a chance. I decided the best way to go was to do it as quietly and inconspicuously as possible. I would wear clothing that looked pretty similar to what people were wearing. My translator coached me on how to walk and what kind of posture to use. I didn’t wear a seatbelt because seatbelts are a dead giveaway that you’re a Westerner. I didn’t look at people when we were stuck in traffic, I just stared straight ahead, and I sat in the back seat. I used a lot of small, possibly futile tactics to try to blend in. But basically I kept a very, very low public profile. I went into people’s houses. Once I was there I spent hours with them, and in the beginning they were very happy to have me. But that began to dwindle over time, and it became more dangerous and now I don’t think you could go anywhere for more than twenty or thirty minutes.
Maria Hinojosa: You touch on a lot of people’s concern about the coverage in Iraq, which is that here we are in the height of modernization in terms of the media and information, and yet we don’t really know anything much about the country that we’re at war with. How is that possible? How can it be possible that we don’t have information and know who these people are?
George Packer: In one way the answer’s very simple: the insurgence had a media strategy and the strategy was blackout, to make it as dangerous as possible for anyone, whether Iraqi or American to get close to them.
Maria Hinojosa: Do you believe that this really is a policy that the insurgents wanted?
George Packer: Yes, I think so. I wondered about it because it seemed to me that the more coverage there was of the insurgency, the less support there was here in the U.S. for the war. I actually talked to some people, not insurgents per se, but supporters, and I asked them “Why are they doing this? Why don’t they invite someone like me to come in and talk to them and really scare the hell out of the American public?” Well, the insurgents were acting on different instincts and their instinct was, “You are part of the infidel occupation, we will kill you if you get close to us.” So as a result we know very little; we know far less about the Iraqi insurgency than we knew about the Vietcong, for example.
Laura Poitras: Actually, I have a question about that. When you’re talking about the insurgency, do you think it’s foreigners coming in , or people from nationalist Baathis Sunni parts of Iraq. Specifically, I’m talking about what you’re referring to, these people who are not talking to the media. I’m asking because there were people who knew I was in Dr. Riyadh’s house. I was there regularly enough, and at his clinic enough, there were people who knew.
George Packer: That’s why I say that it was very risky.
Laura Poitras: But I think that in terms of the Sunni resistance Baathists, who certainly don’t want to be occupied, and who are certainly blowing up and targeting the U.S. military, I don’t think that I was their target.
George Packer: Well, if you can be confident that during every move you made, you would be able to distinguish them from the ones who regard you as an infidel, then maybe you could operate, but I did not feel all that confident.
Laura Poitras: I certainly wasn’t confident, but I wasn’t worried about Dr. Riyadh’s next door neighbor turning me in.
George Packer: But what about the cousin of the next door neighbor? Or what about the criminal gang that the next door neighbor’s cousin is in touch with who might want to make some money off of you?
Laura Poitras: That issue came up in the film because Dr. Riyadh’s nephew was kidnapped, and when I was in Iraq, it was right before the elections and we didn’t know if the kidnapping was political, and we didn’t know if they knew that Dr. Riyadh was a candidate. If they knew that, they probably knew I was going to be there in Iraq.
Maria Hinojosa: Do you agree, Laura, though, that there was a strategy on the part of the insurgency?
Laura Poitras: I actually don’t, because they really haven’t been targeted as much as they could be. I think that they believe we get the word out about how dangerous things are, and I’m talking mostly about the Iraqi Sunnis who don’t want to be occupied in the resistance.
George Packer: I think that those distinctions matter less and less now.
Maria Hinojosa: Because anyone who is a Western journalist is perceived as…?
George Packer: Because it’s not as though there’s this clear line between Iraqis who are nationalists and whose resistance is based on nationalism, and foreign Jihadis who are coming in to fight the Jihad. The Jihadis are Iraqi. The younger insurgents who may well be the sons of Baathists, aren’t motivated by Baathism; that’s a dead ideology. They’re motivated by what you might call Sunni Islamism. They hate the Shia. They think the Shia are subhuman, and it’s the Sunni Iraqis who have a right to rule. It doesn’t take much to get from that, to the thought that infidels and the Americans are also subhuman or are our enemies, and therefore should be killed.
These are not clear lines, it’s changed in character over time and become less of a simple nationalist insurgency and more of a civil war in which sectarian religious passions are the driving force; once you get into that realm, I just wouldn’t want to take my chances that I knew the Baathists from Islamists, I wouldn’t feel confident that I could make that call.
Maria Hinojosa: Laura, you say that part of what you wanted to do with your film, My Country, My Country, is that you wanted your viewers — Americans — to understand the war as it is for Iraqis. But I kept on wondering, do you think that Americans even understand the war as Americans?
Laura Poitras: I think Americans think about this war and talk about the war from the perspective of what it means to Americans, and they don’t think very hard about what it means to the people whose lives are on the line — both Iraqis and Americans in the military in Iraq.
Maria Hinojosa: But yet so many Americans — unless they have a loved one, a cousin ora friend who’s in the military — have no clue whatsoever about what’s going on in Iraq.
Laura Poitras: And don’t care. That was one of my transitions: coming home after being in Baghdad for eight months and realizing how little, in a way, the war really registers or matters, that people are not really paying attention to it or think about it that much. I think that that has a lot to do with the media, and print media is much better than television. For example, it was interesting to me that during the bombing of Lebanon, there was this excitement on CNN that all these people could put on their flak jackets and go, and the show starts over again. You really get a sense that it’s a war show. Whereas now Iraq, because Western journalists can’t move around, the show’s not that interesting and they tune out.
Maria Hinojosa: There is a moment in your film, when people are getting ready for the election and they’re being spoken to by an American military official who says, “Your elections are going to be the biggest show on earth, they’re going to be seen all over. Your show.” And the Iraqi says, “What do you mean this is a show?” and he was confused. Tell me about that scene.
Laura Poitras: It was actually a shoot that I fought really hard to get on. Some of the access I got in Iraq came serendipitously, some of it went through repeated, repeated emails. For that particular shoot, I knew that there was going to be training of police before elections, and then I got an email and officially, they said, “No, the training is not going to happen, it’s not going to happen.” But somebody else sent me an email from the military and said, “Listen, it’s happening, you didn’t hear it from me.” I approached the military and I got in.
It was two days of training where the U.S. State Department and Justice Department had put together a manual for training Iraqi lieutenants. So these were Iraqi police officers who were high up, and the U.S. brought them from all over the country to do this training. I filmed for the whole two days and during this one particular scene, it’s a contractor for the Justice and State Departments who was conducting this training and talking about this is going to be such a great show. But then you listen to the conversation that develops, and you realize that the people he’s talking to — the Iraqi police — are going to be on the front lines, so these are the people who are going to die in the show.
Maria Hinojosa: That’s what he’s saying to them, “This isn’t a show for us.”
Laura Poitras: Then they respond back and say, “This is our history.” Hopefully, the film captures that in terms of the stakes of these elections for Iraqis. The risk that they took to turn out and vote was huge, with the death threats that were all over the place, and for the Iraqi election had a higher turnout than we have here in the U.S.!
I think I was probably more cynical going in, thinking that this election is a show put on by the U.S., but then spending time with Dr. Riyadh, seeing the risk he took, his absolute commitment to his country and the courage of people coming out — you can’t deny what people did on that day in terms of taking a risk. That’s not to say that the election has created any kind of stability in the country because it hasn’t. In a way it’s just more tragic because everything feels so futile and doomed from the way that the whole occupation and invasion has happened, and yet you still have people like Dr. Riyadh, his family, or the 80% of people who turned out to vote in the last elections, who have a desire for self determination.
Maria Hinojosa: When we’re talking about the future, moving forward, possibilities and hope, I’m struck by the one scene when you go to Abu Ghraib, and I guess this was before the photographs of prisoners in Abu Ghraib were made public.
Laura Poitras: No, this was after. This was three months after the photographs were made public and all over the news, when the New Yorker broke it, and probably nine months after the photographs were actually taken. So I was there then, and that’s where I met Dr. Riyadh, who was at Abu Ghraib on that day in the scene that’s in the film.
Maria Hinojosa: Dr. Riyadh has a conversation with a little boy who is in prison in Abu Ghraib who is nine years old. When you saw that, what went on for you?
Laura Poitras: It’s shocking to hear the U.S. officials and military try to justify detaining nine-year-olds as being dangerous and criminal.
Maria Hinojosa: And that’s what the military officer says, right? He says, “These juveniles are dangerous.”
Laura Poitras: Right. I filmed two hours at Abu Ghraib and for the “My Country, My Country” DVD, we are going to show thirty or forty minutes of the Abu Ghraib footage. In the original invasion, what the U.S. did was this kind of scooping up of a lot of people, not knowing who they were and what they had done, and holding them forever because we didn’t have any translators who could process them. So then you have people who’ve been in Abu Ghraib for a year, and of course that created resentment from how this war was conducted: the mistakes, the lack of foresight. When I filmed Dr. Riyadh at Abu Ghrabi, there were people who had been held there for a year, and there were nine-year-olds, and so I think it captures the real tragedy.
Maria Hinojosa: George Packer, when people see My Country, My Country, what are we supposed to take away from this? Are we supposed to come away even more frustrated with not only the state of affairs in Iraq, but the fact that we don’t know the story, the fact that perhaps things after the election did not necessarily get any better? What are we supposed to take away?
George Packer: I think it’s just the word that Laura used: tragedy. This war is a tragedy for Americans and Iraqis because there were possibilities of better things, because there were hopes and dreams riding on the overthrow of the regime, because people are still willing to sacrifice themselves even now for what they believe in, whether it’s entering politics or joining a women’s organization or working as an Iraqi journalist.
The fact that the war has led to bloodshed, and more war for people who had already seen far more than their share, is just a huge tragedy, and what I really loved and responded to in Laura’s film was that she captured that tragedy without judgment, without an easy ideological take one way or the other. In this country it’s very easy to make up your mind about Iraq. In Iraq it’s not at all easy because it’s human, it’s complicated. But the thing that it comes down to is that the situation is a tragedy because it is human. It’s human beings who have been the victims of this disaster, and that’s what you see in her film and that’s what very few journalists have managed to convey in such an intimate, passionate way.
Maria Hinojosa: Laura, you said you had your own preconceptions about what might happen and what you might see. You were changed by your experience in Iraq. Where are you now in terms of the change of your perspective with Iraq and where to go from here? Are you optimistic or profoundly pessimistic?
Laura Poitras: You can only be pessimistic. I don’t see how you can be optimistic. Yesterday, a close friend of Dr. Riyadh, who is the brother of the vice-president of Iraq, was assassinated. People stormed his house and chased him out onto his roof and shot him in the head. Dr. Riyadh calls me regularly and tells me these stories. So there’s no way to be optimistic about Iraq.
Maria Hinojosa: But nonetheless, we should all watch My Country, My Country. Laura Poitras and George Packer, thank you for being with us for POV on PBS. I’m Maria Hinojosa for NOW, thanks for joining us.
George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of several books, including Blood of the Liberals (FSG, 2000), winner of the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Award. He is also editor of the anthology The Fight Is for Democracy (Harper Perennial, 2003). His reporting from Iraq won an Overseas Press Award.
Maria Hinojosa, an award-winning journalist and author, joined NOW as Senior Correspondent in 2005. Hinojosa, who formerly covered urban affairs for CNN, also serves as anchor and managing editor of National Public Radio’s Latino USA, a weekly national program reporting on news and culture in the Latino community.