My Country, My Country
2006Director: Laura Poitras
Cast: Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, Carlos Valenzuela, Peter Towndrow
ow often have physicians—both characters and real figures—explained or personified modern violence from the very heart of its upheavals? Pasternak’s Yuri Zhivago made Russia’s convulsions intelligible. From Algeria’s war of independence, psychiatrist Franz Fanon produced The Wretched of the Earth. Cillian Murphy is a doctor-in-training in the Irish Free State-era civil war in Ken Loach’s Cannes sensation The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Though Dr. Ayman al-Zawahari may be no Che Guevara, Osama’s right-hand man, too, was once a surgeon.
Now, the exceedingly complex question of transplanting Western-style elections to Iraq during an escalating insurgency comes to our movie theaters in the person of Dr. Riyadh, whose seemingly doomed run for political office approaches tragedy. Speaking by phone from New York last Friday, the day her documentary My Country, My Country opened there at Cinema Village, Laura Poitras related how she found her film’s protagonist. In “this kind of filmmaking,” she explains, it doesn’t make sense to plan things too much. In July 2004, she had been in Iraq about three weeks. Working entirely alone, she intended to film the six months’ run-up to Iraq’s first elections. Then she encountered the Sunni physician as he conducted an inspection at Abu Ghraib Prison. We see this on-screen, as he patiently, intently wades through and sorts out the tangle of flayed emotions and crossed agendas.
Poitras says, “My instincts just told me, like, this guy is really amazing, in terms of his ability to talk across both sides of the fence—to reach out to the detainees, and then also to negotiate on their behalf with the US military.” To a remarkable degree, Poitras’ even-handed film manages to do the same thing. Her lucky discovery of Dr. Riyadh—coincidentally a candidate for the Baghdad Provincial Council from the largest Sunni group, the Iraqi Islamic Part—provides a resonant focal point for Western audiences. That he is both a physician and a Western-style candidate, with a family of constantly challenging women, engenders a familiarity about Dr. Riyadh that puts him on a par with many seemingly more familiar, non-Iraqi figures who teem across the screen—UN-connected Europeans, Australian mercenaries, US military, and State Department types.
For Arab audiences—and for our illumination, if we wish—there is the film’s haunting soundtrack, written and performed by Kadhum al-Sahir. This pop singer and classical composer, from Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, is the world’s top-selling Arab musician (over 30 million records). He has lived in Egypt since 1993, in exile from Saddam’s regime. Of the array of successful connections manifested throughout her film, Poitras is most proud of Kadhum al-Sahir’s participation. When he performed in Detroit, she flew there and went backstage to ask him to do the score. “For any Arab speaker, if they watch the first five minutes of this film?” Poitras answers her own question, “The second his voice comes on, they know this man. He’s singing, ‘Oh my country, when will you have a happy morning?’ They know that voice and they know he’s in exile. It sends shivers, because it has such resonance.”
My Country, My County opens on Baghdad’s Election Day morning. A single bird sweeps across a vast, pink dawn sky. A man makes coffee in a dark, cramped kitchen. A young woman’s voice asks, “Dad, will you vote?” Her question becomes a refrain, repeated three times through the film, underscoring the irony of Dr. Riyadh’s position as both father and candidate. By the time he sends his wife and offspring out to vote, his party has withdrawn its slate in boycott and ordered him not to vote. The film then back-tracks six months, and brings us along at intervals, with tightly edited vignettes of Dr. Riyadh’s progress alternating with the larger project of mounting an election, up to this Election Day morning, replaying the kitchen scene and proceeding to the day’s immediate aftermath.
Along the way, we see Dr. Riyadh treating patients, feeding his chickens, pleading with the Americans to let medical aid into the embattled city of Fallujah, facing his increasingly fractious family, and arguing—against a tide of resentment and sorrow from every quarter—that, “If we don’t participate, we will be left on the sidelines.” With elections two months off, Dr. Riyadh has grown thinner and grayer. In one somber scene, speakers at his party headquarters debate pulling out of the election. Repeatedly, the camera pans back to his watchful face as he grasps that many of his colleagues are simply unable to see past their fury at the US.
On Election Day, he listens when his wife and daughters return home from the polls, embarrassed, vociferous. “I elected you myself,” one daughter practically spits, adding that they were the only family from the block at the polls. His wife Samera, who earlier had exclaimed, “Politics is not good for you!” says she hid her purple-inked finger. Another daughter sarcastically says no, she cannot make the luncheon salad—because she’s voted, “The Resistance is after me!”
Much of the three days surrounding the election is occupied by the kidnapping for ransom of Dr. Riyadh’s nephew Yasir, whose father, also a doctor, breaks down during cell-phone negotiations when he fears his son is lost. Despite raising Yasir’s ransom price—a sum that Poitras reports she contributed to because, she says, “How could you not?”—Dr. Riyadh coolly shares his analysis with the camera as well as with the family packed into his tiny living room. He observes, “Saudi Arabia and Syria are giving money to the Resistance. The whole world is giving money to the Resistance. They don’t need our money,” he adds of the kidnappers, part of widespread intimidation kidnappings near the election. Dr. Riyadh may be, as Laura Poitras says, a deeply religious man, but he is also deeply astute, uncommonly able to pay attention to what goes on around him and maintain his own footing. In this respect, he and the filmmaker are rather alike.
When not trailing her doctor-candidate protagonist, Poitras is following the voter registration and election process—with the UN support team headed by Carlos Valenzuela, at Iraq’s Election Commission, inside US State Dept. “pep talks” and media strategy briefings, along on transport of heavily guarded registration materials and ballot boxes, at gun deals by Australian mercenaries in the mountains of Kurdistan, inside helicopter sweeps over the city and protests at the Abu Hanifa mosque. Over and over, with a jolt at some unexpected point, you wonder how on earth Poitras ended up where she is shooting from. Despite the chaos she documents, the film itself is organized, coherent, rapidly paced, and devoid of cheap shots. Its very immediacy is unnerving.
My Country, My Country is playing in limited release. Hear an interview with Laura Poitras on Women’s Voices Radio, WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM, on Thursday, 8/31/06 at 8:00 p.m. DST, via web-streaming at www.waer.org.