Beginning Feb. 2, approximately one hour of video will be a featured part of the first UFPPC meeting of the month (first Thursdays at 7:00 p.m. at First United Methodist, 423 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma). -- We'll begin Thursday, Feb. 2, with an hour from a documentary film entitled "The Dream of Sparrows," a film by Hayder Mousa Daffar offering an unfiltered portrait of life in Baghdad after the U.S. invasion, which the New York Times called "a fiery doorway into a hitherto unknown reality. . . . Very few of us live in this movie." -- Footage was shot by five Iraqi filmmakers. -- Daffar's film was discussed in the final seven paragraphs of a long review of documentary films about Iraq by Tom Bissel in the New York Times Magazine on Nov. 13, 2005 (full article reproduced below)....
WHAT: "The Dream of Sparrows," (http://www.iraqeye.org/) a documentary
film of life in Baghdad after the U.S. invasion
WHO: Film by Hayder Mousa Daffar; footage shot by five Iraqi filmmakers
WHEN: Thursday, February 2, 2006, 7:00 p.m. (part of a regular UFPPC meeting)
WHERE: First United Methodist Church, 423 Martin Luther King Jr. Way
United for Peace of Pierce County meets first and third Thursdays in Tacoma at First United Methodist Church, 423 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
[NOTE: Daffar's "The Dream of Sparrows" is discussed in the final paragraphs of this long article.]
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
By Tom Bissell
New York Times
November 13, 2005
In the middle of Peter Davis's Vietnam war documentary, "Hearts and Minds," a large, pale, scarily eyebrowless face suddenly takes over the screen. It's the face of Col. George S. Patton III, son of the famous general, as he describes his attendance at a memorial service in Vietnam for some fallen American soldiers. When he gazed upon the faces of the memorial's attendees, Patton says: "I was just proud. My feeling for America just soared. . . .They looked determined and reverent at the same time. But still'' -- and here Colonel Patton's abrupt, savage smile reveals a mouth packed with draft-horse-size choppers -- ''they're a bloody good bunch of killers."
It is a moment you have to see to fully appreciate, which is to say it is a moment you have to see to believe. And it is the sort of completely defenseless moment you often see only in documentary films. No Hollywood dramatization could do justice to Patton's cheerful viciousness, and a print journalist would doubtless hoard Patton's words for some skeweringly perfect ending. But Davis allows Colonel Patton and reverent killers to float through his film like stray pieces of the dreadful shipwreck that was American aspiration in Vietnam.
"Hearts and Minds" hit theaters in 1974. Columbia Pictures, the original distributor of "Hearts and Minds," refused to release the film, and Walt Rostow, who had been national security adviser under President Johnson, sued to block its distribution. Warner Brothers eventually brought the picture out, and it won an Academy Award for best documentary.
Davis made his documentary with three questions in mind: Why did we go to Vietnam? What did we do there? What did the doing in turn do to us? "I didn't expect the film to answer these questions," Davis admits in the commentary on the Criterion Collection DVD edition of the film. "I expected it to address those questions." Explanatory impotence is not unique to the documentary, but in some ways is abetted by the form. Inimitably vivid yet brutally compressed, documentaries often treasure image over information, proffer complications instead of conclusions, and touch on rather than explore. But when a documentary film takes on the considerable subject of war, inconclusiveness can frustrate, though the viewer's frustration is not necessarily with the film. Even "Hearts and Minds" acknowledges its limitations: "You were over there, too," one man angrily says to the filmmakers at a stateside parade, "with your damn cameras."
The damn cameras have now been to Iraq and back. Few of the Iraq-war documentaries offer such self-awareness, though, and most neglect to address the war as a result of choices that might have been made differently. The one that comes closest is probably Stephen Marshall's "Battleground." In showing us insurgents discussing their hatred of Americans while Humvees pass by, an Iraqi translator explaining that the invasion was due to the collapse of the American economy, a former anti-Saddam guerrilla reuniting with his mother after 13 years of exile and a U.S. officer marveling at the fact that Iraqis wear jeans ("They could be anywhere in the United States"), "Battleground" provides a movingly human and many-sided portrait of the war. It is, however, more the exception than the rule. In the grunt's-eye view offered in "Occupation: Dreamland" and "Gunner Palace," the Iraq war functions as a savage reversal of American expectation. In "Control Room," about Al Jazeera, the war is a rough beast sprinting toward Bethlehem. In "The Dreams of Sparrows," a film made by Iraqis, the war is a fiery doorway into a hitherto unknown reality. But in all of these films the war just is. Matthew Arnold famously said that journalism was "literature in a hurry." The analytic content of these Iraq documentaries sometimes feels like journalism in a hurry. These are partial maps drawn while still within the maze of war.
Any honest documentary film about war must address the question of human suffering, given that human suffering is war's distillation. But whose suffering? In January 2004, we learn in Garrett Scott and Ian Olds's "Occupation: Dreamland," soldiers from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne were living on the edge of Falluja in an abandoned Baathist resort called Dreamland. The 82nd's modest mission: maintain order and suppress resistance. The bloody Marine-led siege of Falluja in April 2004 would occur after the 82nd had been rotated out of the area. The film thus becomes an unlikely elegy, for the Falluja of "Occupation: Dreamland," having been reduced to a Stalingradian ruin during its assorted American assaults, no longer exists.
The primary focus of "Occupation: Dreamland" is a handful of infantrymen who occupy a single crowded room papered with Maxim pinups and scattered with spittoons. In their modest billet these young men flex and pose in their mirrors, don their flak vests and goggles while listening to the metal band Slayer, mockingly read aloud from letters of stateside support, and heatedly argue politics until their staff sergeant reminds them of the camera. These soldiers' political diversity may -- but should not -- surprise many viewers. Last summer I spent a month in Iraq embedded with the Marines and found men and women of widely divergent opinions about the war. Some were thoughtful, others clerics of ignorance. The soldiers in "Occupation: Dreamland" are equally afflicted and afflicting, and you quietly grieve for those soldiers given to more searching turns of mind: "I want some answers," Pfc. Thomas Turner (an avowed Democrat) says early in the film. "I want some clarification of what we're doing. . . .I guess somebody smarter than me knows what's going on."
Soon enough the mood turns ominous. One suspected insurgent explains to an American through a platoon interpreter: "I'm not opposed. Do you understand me? I'm not opposed." The soldier responds, "Zip him up." The Iraqi is next shown being hooded and cuffed and pushed into the back of a truck while some young Iraqis watch mutely. Later, while an outraged Iraqi buttonholes the camera about the "indecent" actions of Americans, like taking Iraqi women from local homes, a nearby soldier explains where he is from to two supremely unmoved Iraqis. "What is 'California'?" one Iraqi asks the other in Arabic. The soldiers themselves realize that these pathetic public-relations attempts are scarcely worth the oxygen, yet one of the film's most heartbreaking scenes -- filmed in night-vision-goggle green -- shows an American stopping to make small talk with an Iraqi man near Dreamland's perimeter. An effortful, translation-error-ridden conversation ensues, and you sense that this soldier is so urgently trying to communicate because he feels that his very humanity is at stake. Many of the soldiers acknowledge the legitimacy of Iraqi anger and fear. As one says, "If this was home in Chicago, and there were some Iraqi soldiers comin' up and shovin' on my door, I'd be running up there with a couple guns myself."
The overall atmosphere in "Occupation: Dreamland" is churchy, Skoal-drooling, almost exaggeratedly heterosexual and not quite Southern so much as southern Indianan. In "Gunner Palace," the overall atmosphere is pass-the-mike ebullience. Several soldiers freestyle some not-too-swift rhymes ("We live from Baghdad / Man, it's so sad") and another plays "The Star-Spangled Banner" on his electric guitar before a molten Baghdad sun. Narrated by its whiskey-voiced director, Mike Tucker, "Gunner Palace" takes a markedly different view of the war than "Occupation: Dreamland." In "Gunner Palace" the war is presented as deadly but vaguely ennobling. Gunner Palace itself, a ruined and colonnaded home that once belonged to Uday Hussein, is described by its commanding officer as an "adult's paradise." Tucker never really steps back to examine the wisdom of American soldiers being billeted in the opulent mansion of a murderous regime they came to depose. Instead he employs his most pointed ironies by overlaying Donald Rumsfeld saying things like "Baghdad is bustling with commerce" upon scenes of a Baghdad bustling with flying lead. Which is not to say that "Gunner Palace" lacks a moral measuring tape. In the film's most moving interview, a young Army intelligence analyst, clearly frustrated by the war, says, "I don't think, anywhere in history, has somebody killed somebody else and something better has come out of it."
Many of the subjects in "Gunner Palace" talk about how no one can understand what they are going through; how to their friends back home, Baghdad is one big action film. "For y'all it's just a show," Specialist Richmond Shaw, the "palace poet," tells the camera. "But we live in this movie." Tucker's narration also addresses this ontological quandary: "Unlike a movie, war has no end." But by the end of the film, you're fairly sure that viewing the Iraq war as a movie is less our problem than that of these soldiers. Enriched by its metal and hip-hop soundtrack and littered with dramatic comeuppances, "Gunner Palace" feels just like a movie, and moreover appears to know it: one of its wittier touches updates the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" scene from "Apocalypse Now." What is strangest about "Gunner Palace" is its appeal to both the ardently pro-war and militantly antiwar. No doubt this is because of its obvious affection for its subjects alongside its unblinking portrayal of what they are forced to do.
There are only a few species of American soldier to be found in "Control Room": shouting brutes, grinning rationalizers, and incompetent morons. The brutes all come to us through third-party footage, the rationalizers through intimate interviews, the morons from behind press-briefing podiums. Directed by Jehane Noujaim, "Control Room" is a sleek inquiry into the nature of the news media in a time of war, and what Noujaim discovers amounts to a murky casserole of McLuhanesque ingredients. Unlike the makers of "Occupation: Dreamland" and "Gunner Palace," the makers of "Control Room" were never in actual physical danger, which probably explains the film's icier gaze. But in telling the story of the Iraq war through the prism of Al Jazeera (with 40 million Arab viewers, the largest and most influential news-media force in the region), "Control Room" achieves a tone as apocalyptic as that of "Gunner Palace" and "Occupation: Dreamland," but in a far quieter key. It is an assassin to their blundering grunts.
Donald Rumsfeld groused that Al Jazeera "has a pattern of playing propaganda over and over and over again. What they do is when there's a bomb that goes down, they grab some children and some women and pretend that the bomb hit the women and the children." At one point in "Control Room," the winningly bitter Al Jazeera producer Samir Khader points to a television screen that holds the image of a wounded Iraqi child. "Rumsfeld called this incitement," he says. "I call it true journalism."
In most of the Iraq-war films, this is as close as we get to the victims of American violence and insurgent terror. The war Peter Davis filmed in "Hearts and Minds" is not the sort of war American filmmakers in Iraq are privy to -- at least not without risking their heads. Davis could, and did, talk to average Vietnamese who had been bombed and maimed. Such victims are virtually absent in "Occupation: Dreamland" and "Gunner Palace," and they are footage of footage in "Control Room."
What "Control Room" seeks to illuminate (where truth devolves into propaganda and where war and media join hands) is much less interesting than its incidental illuminations -- among them the ineptitude of the United States military's press office, as when an American press officer obliviously tries to interest a roomful of hostile Arab reporters in the story of Jessica Lynch's rescue. "We're not here to give coverage to the press," announces a Navy press officer giving coverage to the press. "We're here to liberate the people of Iraq." It all builds into a frieze of cluelessness.
Noujaim's method is to wait around until something happens. Her patience is both dreadfully and movingly rewarded. An Al Jazeera reporter is killed by American forces, perhaps intentionally, and an unlikely friendship develops between Hassan Ibrahim, a portly Al Jazeera producer, and Lt. Josh Rushing, a sensitive Marine Corps press officer. Rushing's moral awakening provides "Control Room" with much of its arc. Routinely slaughtered by Ibrahim in conversation, Rushing struggles with his memorized talking points and the reality of what he sees, ultimately recognizing that Fox News and Al Jazeera are simply two sides of the same cathode and deciding that improving Arab-American relations is the duty of his generation. (Rushing now works for Al Jazeera.)
"The Dreams of Sparrows," the Iraqi director Hayder Mousa Daffar's account of life under the occupation, opens with a re-enactment (the film's only obvious fictional interlude) of a mother giving birth during the invasion; she dies. "This movie," Daffar tells us, "is about what happened to that child, to the new Iraq." The new Iraq is not of much interest to Scott and Olds, Tucker or Noujaim. Nor are they much interested in the old Iraq. They are concerned with the minute-to-minute Iraq, which their cameras devour. Through the eyes of Iraqis, in "The Dreams of Sparrows," we can finally divine what emerges from the war's digestive tract.
Daffar notes that, before the invasion, filmmaking in Iraq was completely controlled by the Baathists, and you can sense not only his excitement but also the unfamiliarity of his excitement ("I couldn't believe I was finally making a documentary about Iraq!") at being able to drive around Baghdad photographing everything from smiling American soldiers to fly-covered animal carcasses lying roadside amid empty Pepsi cans.
If "The Dreams of Sparrows" has a fault, it is that it too consciously addresses Western viewers and too reductively assumes the worst of them. But it is when Daffar is thinking less of his presumed audience and more of his subjects that his film stuns. Perhaps most notably, "The Dreams of Sparrows" suggests an emotional complexity about the war that few Americans, whatever their feelings, appear willing to entertain. Daffar's sweet, huggable, pro-America cameraman, Hayder Jabbar, carries a picture of Bush in his wallet: "I love him as much as I love my father." Khariya Mansour, a red-haired Iraqi filmmaker, tells Daffar, "The occupation is bad, and Saddam is bad." Daffar asks her about the portrait of Bush in her living room. "I like Bush," she says. "I like him so much I am in love with him. I love him because he gave us freedom."
From Baghdad's necropolis of slums and nightmarish refugee camps we travel with Daffar to its middle-class apartments, artists' hangouts, mosques and the headquarters of the Communist Party. This is a city of armed men and of stylish women nervously chain-smoking in their apartments; a city where children studying in a private school hold up crayon drawings and say, "Here the tank is aiming at the helicopter, and they exchange shells and rockets." Some Baghdad taxi drivers complain about the Americans ("God willing, [Saddam] will come back and will bring peace to the country"), while former Iraqi soldiers trained to kill Americans are interestingly divided. One calls America a "by the book" terrorist state, while another says: "Saddam's party was a terrorist regime. He was strangling us. It was an unbearable regime." Daffar does not soft-pedal the issue of Baathist brutality. "Do you have any cases affected by the regime?" he asks a doctor at an insane asylum. "They are all affected by it" is the response. Here Daffar's moral vision is unassailable, and the viewer realizes the truly flea-market nature of American anti-Baathism.
When asked if cinema is necessary for Iraqi society, Daffar's cameraman Jabbar says: "Cinema is very necessary. Cinema is a language . . . the fastest way to reach the people." I suspect that the makers of "Occupation: Dreamland," "Gunner Palace" or "Control Room" did not have "reaching the people" in mind while cutting together their footage, and perhaps consequently, around the edges of their films lingers a grim irrelevance. "Control Room" in particular is so resigned to its futility that it achieves a kind of depressed self-hypnosis.
In the closing minutes of "The Dreams of Sparrows," lovable, pro-American Hayder Jabbar tells us that, because of a misunderstanding, a friend of his and Daffar's has been killed by American soldiers, who accidentally pumped more than a hundred bullets into the friend's car. "He was," Jabbar says of his dead friend, "the first one to be happy at the fall of Saddam's regime." The film cuts to Daffar, who is smoking, raccoon-eyed, wearing a tank top and addressing the camera directly.
"Baghdad," Daffar says, "Baghdad is hell, really is hell." He laughs bitterly. "U.S. troops and government of U.S.A. is very dirty here. In start, when Baghdad is fall, when Saddam is gone, I am very happy. Not just me. Believe me. All Iraqi people. . . .U.S. troops is very hardhearted." This shattering film ends with Daffar shaking his head, unable to remember his English. His despair does not come off as predatory, but as personally and harshly earned. Very few of us live in this movie.
--Photos: Scenes From a War: "The Dreams of Sparrows," an Iraqi documentary, offers a checkered view of the occupation. (Stills From "The Dreams Of Sparrows," Directed By Hayder Daffar, Harbinger Productions). Drawing (Drawing by Simon Pemberton).