Gotham-based documaker Laura Poitras (“Flag Wars”) comes up with a still-timely, quietly hard-hitting look at the Iraqi situation with “My Country, My Country,” focusing on the lead-up to and outcome of the Jan. 30, 2005, Iraq election. Sans commentary and shown largely from the p.o.v. of a Baghdad medical doctor who’s also a Sunni political candidate, the film makes broader points on current U.S. foreign policy through footage shot from as wide afield as Kurdistan to Fallujah, as well as in the capital. Festival and tube play, especially in Europe, looks like a given.
Starting in July ’04, some six months before Election Day, Poitras lets her characters do the talking, nowhere less acutely than in a press briefing by the U.S. ambassador. “We’re going to run this show better than anybody ever thought possible,” he says. The bemusement by his audience that Iraq’s first democratic election in 30-odd years is reduced to a media event is palpable.
Same theme of visible perceptions is echoed by another U.S. officer, who opines he’s only interested in whether “Joe Iraqi” thinks the elections are fair, “not what Denmark thinks.”
Poitras’ Joe Iraqi of choice is Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, who runs a volunteer medical clinic in the Adhamiya, a Sunni nabe of Baghdad. Many of the conversations between Riyadh and his family and patients do have a staged feel, though they cover the issues from most angles.
As a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni group, Riyadh’s main priority is to convince the party not to delegitimize the election by a boycott. But as the weeks tick by, and the whole process — voter registration, ballot forms, security — teeters on the edge of chaos, his dream slowly disintegrates.
Especially interesting is when Poitras follows around Peter Towndrow, one of the many private security contractors. Hired because U.S. military can’t be seen to be involved directly in election policing, Aussie Towndrow is seen buying guns from a dealer, as well as receiving direct briefings and instructions from U.S. officers.
What comes over clearly is that the whole idea of a democratic election, which the West sees as logical and fair, is being shoehorned, via foreign military occupation, into a culture built on discussion, compromise and negotiation. Basically, nobody agrees about anything.
The Kurdish North supports the process for reasons of its own; the center of the country is a more volatile mix.
Lensing by Poitras herself is observational rather than confrontational, and composed rather than fly-on-the-wall. Coolly edited film comes as a neat reminder a year later, when some would like to draw a neat line under the Iraq situation, that the “show” isn’t necessarily everything.