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VOICES OF IRAQ

 

Filmed, Directed by and Starring:  The People of Iraq
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Magnolia Pictures
Features:  None
Length:  79 Minutes
Release Date:  October 29, 2004

“I hope Iraq will be the greatest country in the world…I hope the world will see our smiles.”

Film ****

Voices of Iraq is one of the most moving and inspiring documentaries I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch.  It’s like witnessing the birth of an unimaginable miracle.  If, as it has been said, the basic yearning of all human beings is to be free, then this is a film that speaks directly to that most sacred part of all of us.

It was a simple project instigated by a group called Voices of Freedom, who decided to distribute 150 digital video cameras to the people of Iraq in April of 2004, telling them to film anything they wanted to…themselves, their friends, their families…giving them full license to speak their minds and talk about whatever they felt like addressing.  Then pass the cameras along so that others could do the same.  In September, the cameras were collected, and the amassed footage was turned into this documentary…a film in which the Iraqis spoke with their own voice, with no one looking over their shoulders.

The six month period encompassed a lot of landmarks in the war…it began with the first Fallujah insurgency.  Early on in the film, many Iraqis were disheartened.  They were not sure if their futures had a chance with all the bombings and disruptive terrorist attacks.  Though they were glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein, some wondered aloud if they would have been better off with him remaining in power.

But despite the hardships, many begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Setbacks are amusingly chronicled by the American media as worse than they are (we frequently see newspaper headlines on dates where the video footage is showing quite a different picture).  How did the Iraqis really react, for example, to Abu-Grahib?  At least one was impressed that America would apologize for it.  Many had been in that prison when it was Saddam’s torture chamber, and therefore don’t see why such a fuss was being made over the photos that had the anti-war crowd in our country so up in arms.

On the day sovereignty was handed over, many media outlets tried to portray it as a symbolic but meaningless transfer of power.  But in the eyes of the Iraqis, it was a new birth.  People who used to work for slave wages were suddenly getting real money.  Schools were being opened with a new sense of freedom.  News agencies were celebrating that for the first time, they didn’t have to censor themselves.  Open discussions were being held about the emergence of the role of women in Iraqi society.  Okay, some men were still a little hesitant about that, but the women were proud and fearless…one gleefully announces that if men won’t give them their rights, they’ll simply TAKE them.  Another young woman is asked about the future of women’s roles in her country.  She pauses, laughs, and says, “I can’t believe we’re talking about this in IRAQ!”

The Iraqi stock market began to emerge as a true economic force.  Email addresses, which used to cost a year and a half’s worth of an average salary, were becoming common as Iraqi citizens took to the internet.  Passports used to cost a fortune and were hard to come by…now they are free and available to all.  Some older citizens are shown beside themselves with joy that for the first time, they could travel.

We watch the nation look on as their national soccer team played in the Olympics for the first time in 16 years…they had been banned from participation since 1988 because of Uday Hussein’s use of torture against players who lost matches.  Now, playing for love of country instead of fear, they took to the world stage, and despite such a lengthy absence from the event, managed an impressive fourth place showing overall.

Some of the stories that have been force fed to us by our media are shown to be somewhat less than reliable.  Our press told us Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, yet we see actual photos of his chemical weapon attacks against his own people…and worse, the aftermath, as innocent men, women and children were left with their skins burning off of their bodies and no way to save them.  They said there was no pre-9/11 connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda, but listen to the people who had to live with al-Qaeda walking freely amongst them for the last ten years.  One man considered the irony…any normal Iraqi citizen who waxed politic could be jailed, tortured or killed if not all three.  Al-Qaeda, he tells us, was the only political group given free reign in Iraq by Saddam, who even went so far as to secure housing and supplies for them.

Many Iraqis are troubled by the way the world media portrays “Iraqi insurgency” in places like Fallujah.  They speak openly about how emerging democracy in Iraq is a threat to neighboring Arab nations, and how they are the ones sponsoring the insurgencies…not the Iraqis.  (We even see an internet video by al-Zarqawi and his followers pleading for help from the neighboring countries).

The Iraqis have fear, to be sure…who wouldn’t?  But their sense of optimism for a better, free Iraq seems to outweigh the uncertainty.  They are even happy about the thought of democracy spreading beyond their borders, predicting that once it fully emerges in Iraq, other Arab dictators will have their citizenry questioning them as well.

The music of the film is provided by an Iraqi group called Euphrates, whom we see as finally being able to record the kind of music they’ve always wanted to, without government restrictions.  We see Christians and Muslims side by side, respecting one another and working together for the future of their nation.  We see kids dreaming of growing up to be doctors and lawyers and such, while their parents look on and smile and realize the new generation will have the kinds of opportunities that theirs never had.

The film is filled with images both dramatic and humorous, but perhaps the most striking images aren’t the ones dealing with Iraq’s future, but rather…her past.  We see footage from one of Uday’s personal torture videos, and it’s beyond repugnant.  There is a video made by Saddam’s army showing tongues sliced, arms broken, and people being pushed from high buildings to the streets below.  One man got his hand sliced off for the crime of having five American dollars in his pocket.

It’s too bad that while vile propaganda films like Fahrenheit 9/11 get shoved down out throats for the better part of a year, a modest, unstaged and non-partisan film like Voices of Iraq has to struggle for distribution.  It has only been shown in a few cities.  This DVD was produced as a way of getting it seen, but it’s not available in most stores…thankfully, Netflix has chosen to add it to their library so renters can get a look at what can only be described as a documentary of the purest kind…no scripts, no directions, just real people baring their real souls.  I can only hope in the wake of Michael Moore that people will take the time to remember what a real documentary can be like.

Iraq has come a long way in a very short time, all the way from days like those to anticipating the first real elections in their country.  It hasn’t been a smooth road, or one without its share of heartbreaks…this movie doesn’t try to gloss that over…but Voices of Iraq shows a glimpse of a country being born from the inside out.  It’s the kind of vision we may never get to witness in such an up close and personal way again.  It shows a people, in their own words and ways, emerging from darkness into light, from tyranny into freedom, and from despair into hope.  It is, as I said, like seeing a miracle unfold.

Video ***

Being shot on digital video, the widescreen presentation looks quite good.  It’s a look at real life filmed by regular people, so shots weren’t designed with a cinematographer’s eye.  Still, colors and details come through with great integrity.

Audio **

The film is mostly dialogue oriented with both Iraqi and English language words (subtitles exist all the way through so that no phrases are lost via accents or background sounds).  As mentioned, a bit of music by Euphrates sounds nice as well.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing, but I don’t really hold it against the disc…I’m sure it was rushed into production as a means of getting seen facing lack of distribution.  I hope it will be revisited in the future with some extras…I’d like to hear from those whose idea the 150 camera project was, what they hoped to accomplish with it, and what they thought of the results.

Summary:

Voices of Iraq could be the most important film of the year…one that forgoes the political lines and partisan quibbling that has become so prevalent in our country in order to go straight to the heart of the people of an emerging nation to hear what they have to say.

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