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My Country, Your Country: Iraq at the Academy Awards
On Sunday, February 25 at the Kodak Center— that architectural counterpart to Celine Dion — Laura Poitras strutted her Sunday best before Hollywood’s favorite vanity mirror, the Academy Awards. Poitras isn’t a member of the star system. Yet, she was on the red carpet as a nominee for Best Documentary Feature — the thinking person’s reality TV. Her film, My Country, My Country, is a labor of love that she shot single-handedly in some of the most dangerous military industrial complex-prone territory in the world. Poitras has seen what the war dealt the Iraqi people — or, as George W. Bush likes to call them, “the good folks of Iraq.”

“Unfortunately, the debate about the war, both for and against,” Poitras told me, “is really a debate about America, not a debate about the people who are dying in the tens of thousands.”

My Country, My Country follows Riyadh, a Sunni doctor, during his campaign for local office in the 2005 Iraqi elections — the event our mainstream media spun as a purple-thumb validation of democracy and voter participation. Bush, you may recall, characterized that election as “a watershed moment in the story of freedom.”

Poitras was witnessing that "story of freedom" more as a tale of terror. She recently received an email from one of Dr. Riyadh’s daughters. This is what it said:

“I want you to tell the American people that because of the war we lost everything beautiful in our lives — even our simple and sweet dreams and our ability to smile.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Riyadh and his family couldn’t make it to the Kodak Theater. The US doesn’t give visas to unhappy Iraqis unless they work for Halliburton or deal in oil. The Riyadhs are now living in exile, driven from their country out of concerned for their lives.

“They’re refugees now,” Poitra said. “It was too dangerous in his old neighborhood. Dr. Riyadh says that he’s known 200 people personally who have been killed or assassinated.”

A week after he fled the country, Riyadh got word that four of his local council members had been found dead — killed with drills to the head. Had he not bolted from the country, he may have suffered the same fate.

Poitras continued. “This is really hard to comprehend. As we’re debating here — troops, no troops — it doesn’t begin to address the fact of who is left? Who is left there to build this country?”

Increasingly, the “who” that’s left are the angriest, most radical members of Iraqi society. According to the UN, the number of Iraqis fleeing their homeland has increased to 40,000 a month — almost double the rate from only a few months ago.

“Iraq is hemmoraging,” Poitras said. “We’re largely responsible for that and we’re not talking about it. It’s like running over someone with your car and wanting them to say “thank you.’”

But that’s exactly the message that Bush is driving home. As he said in a January 14th interview on 60 Minutes, “I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude. That’s the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that’s significant enough in Iraq.”

Thanks for that, Mr. President. But don’t count Poitras, or for that matter, the majority of Americans among those who feel Iraqi gratitude-entitled.

“The question for me,” Poitras said, “is what is the moral obligation of our country to the people of Iraq? I think it’s huge. That’s the starting point for any conversation.”

In addition to her nomination for an Academy Award, Poitras’ other distinctly American honor is that she’s made the Department of Homeland Security “Watch List.” Her threat-rating of 400 is the highest on the DHS scale.

“There’s all kinds of drama when I fly — particularly internationally when I come back,” she said.

But here’s where this filmmaker's saga gets curioser. The U.S. military invited Poitras to its bases and military colleges to screen the film for high-ranking US officers to provide more understanding about Iraqi culture.

“I’m on military bases being treated as a distinguished speaker, yet there’s somebody in Washington who thinks I’m a dangerous filmmaker,” she said.

It’s wouldn't be surprising if the Bush administration had every one of the filmmakers nominated for this year’s Best Documentary Feature on an enemies list. Besides My Country, My Country, there was James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments, a gorgeously filmed study of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, Amy Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil, a close-up look at Catholic priest pedophilia, Heidi Ewing’s and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp, a controversial trip to a "take back America for Christ" summer camp for kids, and of coursethe winner, Davis Guggenheim's and Al “Global Warming” Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

I asked Poitras if her nomination has changed her in any way? She laughs.

“I’m really happy to be among those films — particularly James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments. We’ve got two films from the point of view of the Iraqi people at the Academy Awards. When we think about how much news coverage we have on Iraq, and how little we actually hear from Iraqis and know about Iraqis, these nominations are a great message to send.”

Let’s hope we all get the message. Outside the lines of debate on the war, with its timely procedures, predatory bullshit and calculated eloquence in service of poll numbers and public opinion upward mobility, there’s a land where a half-inch bit drilled through your head is the rule of order. It’s a place where everything beautiful in life has been lost. It’s a place where, more and more, we are in debt to its people.

— Nathan Callahan, February 21, 2007


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