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IDFA International Documentary Festival Amsterdam

The 23rd edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the world's largest and most prestigious film event devoted exclusively to non-fiction film and media, will run from 17 - 28 November in the city of Amsterdam.


The Face Of Iraq At IDFA

Saturday, December 2-----It certainly makes logical sense that one of the world’s largest documentary film festivals would have a number of films that focused on the troubles in Iraq, but the sheer volume of them has been, at least for this journalist, an eye-opening and yet terribly difficult experience.
IDFA has spared no one with some excellent and heart-rending films that continue to haunt.

The films dealing with the Iraq war, at least the ones that I’ve seen, fall into two distinct categories: films that chronicle the mechanics, the sheer unease of living in a war zone, and, what I would call, a second generation of Iraq documentaries….films that focus on how the lives of everyday Iraqis has been effected by the almost complete meltdown of essential services and security. Whether providing the viewer with a perspective all but lost on the evening news telecast or bringing into sharp focus the way that innocents have been affected, the films have yielded surprising and disturbing results. They are hard for an American to watch and absorb, but essential to witness.

THE WAR TAPES, a directorial debut by US documentarian Deborah Scranton, is another in a series of films that depict the bloodshed and uncertainty of the American soldiers’ tour of duty in Iraq, by giving the soldiers themselves video cameras to record their everyday activities. With scenes ranging from the boringly mundane to harrowing accounts of house raids and arrests, the film shows the raw existence on the streets, where death awaits at any moment. Scranton also covers the home front, as the wife and parents of the soldiers wait in anxious anticipation of the news that they dread to hear. THE WAR TAPES has been short listed for an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, and is certainly one of the strongest and most revealing films on that list.

In Canadian directors Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque’s SHADOW COMPANY, the role of mercenary soldiers, or as they are quixotically referred to “soldiers of fortune”, is revealed as being a key element in the strategic fighting and interrogation of Iraqi insurgents. Not bound by any military law or national loyalty, the film suggest that there may be as many as 30,000 of these mercenary soldiers in Iraq, given the assignments that need to fly below the radar of press attention and public opinion. Through amazing video diaries, suppressed news footage and interviews, an illuminating picture of war as profit emerges, a far cry from the faux “nation building” rhetoric of the Bush administration.

WHEN ADNAN COMES HOME, a world premiere directed by Andrew Berends (US), brings into sharp relief the travails of a typical Iraqi family, whose son Adnan has been arrested and put in jail for a minor offense. While in prison, fate dealt the young man a second awful blue. While attempting to escape, his arms and hands were seriously burned in a fire. Now almost helpless and with his mangled hands decaying by the moment, the man’s family has to make the difficult decision of whether they can afford to pay the lawyers (or bribe the prison guards) to secure Adnan’s release. The breakdown of civil authority and the no-nonsense corruption that has settled in its place is heartrending to witness.

In THE PRISONER OR: HOW I PLANNED TO KILL TONY BLAIR by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, who previously filmed the acclaimed documentary GUNNER PALACE (2004), a progressive Iraqi journalist tells his harrowing story of being caught up in a dragnet that led to nine months of torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib prison. Although he had worked as a cameraman and journalist for CNN and the BBC, Yunis Khatayer Abbas could not convince his American captors that his arrest and imprisonment was a gross violation of justice. In mostly close up interview segments, the film makes the disturbing point of how many innocents are still languishing in jails, being accused of being terrorists by an American army working with weak and inconsistent intelligence. If we are putting such progressive men as Abbas into the hellhole of our interrogation rooms, then what is this ill-conceived war about in the first place?

It will take a long time for me to forget the human tragedy that is depicted in the short film SARI’S MOTHER by James Longley. A young boy contracts the AIDS virus during a blood transfusion of the sanctioned Iraqi bloody supply. His desperate mother travels from agency to agency, hospital to hospital, in a vain attempt to get even the most basic care for her son. The film makes clear that the Iraqi system, which requires consensus at the highest levels before services are dispensed at the lower level, is a frustrating nightmare. It also made clear to me a key fundamental cultural difference with the American method of handling this kind of crisis, and the gap that exists between. How little we seem to know about the people that we are attempting to “save”.

What does it feel like to be an American witnessing these films, one after the other? The idea that this war, and its devastating results on the lives of ordinary Iraqi citizens, has been done "in my name” makes me very ill at ease. Although I have never harbored anything but skepticism and cynicism about the path to war, and the lack of a path out of it, I cannot escape feelings of regret, guilt and even shame….a desire to cry out to the people on the screen…, this is not all Americans, we do not all agree with what has been done to you and your country. I can only hope that eventually there will be understanding, compassion and forgiveness…...first of ourselves, for allowing such events to occur “in our name” and then to the Iraqis themselves, who will remember this period as one of great loss and shame for many generations to come.

As the tide of public opinion is beginning to finally turn in the US against this pointless and costly war, the films described above become essential viewing, to understand how the American presence has only inflamed the entire situation, and how we are perceived by the ordinary Iraqi citizenry. Not as "liberators" (as promised by the Bush administration) but as defilers, torturers, bullys who do not understand nor respect a culture that has been in place for at least 2000 years. Let us hope we have not already paid too high a price for this blunder and that we can help Iraqis restore their dignity, pride and purpose.

Sandy Mandelberger
Online Festival Dailies Editor


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