DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of  In Shfting Sands, The Hidden Wars of Desert Storm, Peace of Mind, Promises, Bethlehem Diary and How I Learned To Overcome My Fear and Love of Arik Sharon, Gaza Strip, Israel in a Time of Terror, To Die in Jerusalem, Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains, O Jerusalem, Waltz with Bashir,  Al-Jazeera Exclusive  Control Room Hijacking Catastrophe Uncovered: The War on Iraq Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, Bush’s Brain , Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties , Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, Private, Turtles Can Fly , Paradise Now , The Terrorist, Syriana , The Syrian Bride , The Dreams of Sparrows , Free Zone , The War Tapes , My Country (Praxis), The Ground Truth, Iraq in Fragments, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, The Situation, The Shape of the Future, No End In Sight, Taxi to the Dark Side, Meeting Resistance, Redacted, Persepolis, Fighting for Life, Body of War, The Tiger and the Snow, W., Taking Chance, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Dear John, Collateral Murder, Operation Homecoming, Budrus, Encounter Point, Band of Bloggers

Title:  In Shifting Sands

Release Date:  2001

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 95 minutes

MPAA Rating:  not given (PG)

Distributor and Production Company:  Five Rivers

Director; Writer: W. Scott Ritter

Producer:

Cast:  Scott Ritter (often speaks to the camera), Rolf Ekeus, Tariq Aziz

Technical: video

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site:

Review:  Here is a detailed documentary of the history of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, which started out as an UN agency UNSCOM (under Rolf Ekeus from Sweden) but eventually was turned over to the U.S.  Over time, Ritter maintains, inspectors found evidence that Iraq’s ability to make weapons of mass destruction really had been clobbered by the Persian Gulf War of 1991, but that Saddam Hussen’s secrecy had more to do with protecting his own hold on power in the country than with maintaining a weapons program. If this is true, then there is less political justification for aggressive action against Iraq (Operation Desert Fox in 1998 and the possible plans today.

 

Ritter, a career Marine Corps officer, had become UNSCOM’s chief weapons inspector in 1992. It is refreshing to see a military person interested in taking what he believes to be an objective look at a policy problem, even if his views seem to some commentators more “quasi-leftist” than expected for a soldier. Democracy thrives on this kind of debate, even in its military.  Plenty of military people, surprisingly or not, become “loyal” liberal Democrats when entering politics later. Plenty of military people have seen enough carnage to work for peace or avoidance of conflict at almost any price, perhaps.

 

Ritter maintains, when talking publicly, that the government doesn’t want this film shown, and that officials do not want to weaken their political case for aggressive stance against Iraq. Ritter also believes that there is no connection between Iraq and the Al Qaeda Sept. 11 attacks.   Public officials, Ritter maintains, decline to discuss his point of view in public. Yes, if loyalty to your employer (the government) means that you can’t “tell the truth,” that is a moral problem.

 

Other politicians have, with a lot of bellicose grandeur, maintained that Saddam must be removed now or else the US faces grave nuclear and biological threats in a few years. Of course, the public is entitled to the truth on this.

 

The film shows on-location scenes of Baghdad and of the surrounding flat country of old Mesopotamia – a welcome opportunity for filmgoers who have little opportunity to see Iraq in person.  It seems to me that it could have spent more narrative on perspective, rather than on the details of weapons inspections. The moral problem—that we punish the Iraqi people with sanctions because of the crimes of Iraq’s leader—is mentioned but could have been demonstrated much more.

 

Note on 1/11/2003: Larry King Live has conducted an interview with filmmaker/director/actor/writer Sean Penn, who described a fairly balanced account of what he saw there. I would look forward to a documentary film from Sean. My position is to agree with Penn and Ritter to this point: we should not attempt to remove Saddam by force without concrete evidence of his current possession of WMD’s or of his involvement with 9-11. However, I believe that such evidence may actually exist (particularly the possibility of smuggling weapons materials from the former Soviet Union and his intention to threaten the oil fields in the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia). However, if it does, the president and/or the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency, which is providing leadership of the inspections) should produce such proof publicly.

 

In February 2003 the University of Minnesota previewed The Hidden Wars of Desert Storm (2000, distr. by Arabfilm), produced by Gerard Ungerman and Audrey Brodey. The film produced an opposition view of the Persian Gulf War (some might say “left wing”) but its points need serious attention. Before the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, Kuwait had upped its production of oil, reducing revenues for Iraq, and angering Saddam Hussein, who saw Kuwait (according to history) as a province of Iraq.  In the months before the invasion, the Bush administration expected a problem, and even seemed to send a signal that it might not care. But, the day after the invasion, the administration was reporting Iraqi troops massed ready to invade Saudi Arabia, a report which is rebutted in this film as possible misleading propaganda, to get US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield and then Desert Storm.

 

In the ensuring years, the U.N. sanctions would have Biblical-plague results for the Iraqi people, especially the children. Or is this Saddam Hussein using his own people as a shield?

 

All of this, however, as we know, would tie into the histrionics of Osama bin Laden. (The film completely predates 9-11 so it cannot mention it.) If you interpret American and British policy as guided by profits for oil companies, you can see how it could be viewed abroad as a national crime so ghastly (even if committed by government and the “corporate state”) as to invite the most grisly and suicidal plot imaginable to teach the American people one last doomsday lesson, before a purification. Of course, such a (left-wing) interpretation may be seriously challenged. American and European oil production (Alaska, the North Sea) had been effective enough to compete with OPEC by the mid 1980s, enough to cause OPEC to raise production and actually deflate oil prices, as well as real estate values in places like Texas (including my condo!) So the Left cannot simply blame oil consumption and oil company greed for what has happened.

 

The film continues with an examination of the Gulf War syndrome, which, the film contends, may have been exacerbated by the use of U-238-tipped ammunition by coalition forces. Just as Agent Orange in Vietnam, the use of uranium in conventional ammo arguably crosses a line into the use of “dirty weapons,” the things that (on a much grander scale) we must keep away from Saddam Hussein.

 

Many prominent people appear in the film: Scott Ritter (again), Madeleine Albright, who makes a quashed insensitive remark about the victims of the sanctions, Ramsey Clark (a political favorite of Paul Rosenfels in my Ninth Street Center days), and Dan Fahey, speaking for Gulf War Veterans but looking too young and preppy to be one himself, so I presume he is speaking for his father.

 

Another issue-specific film is Peace of Mind (1999), directed by Mark Landsman, which documents the lives of eight teenagers, both Jewish and Palestinian, as they interact at the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine in 1997 and then get on with their lives back in Israel and on the West Bank. This was shown at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and is now being shown in 2002 Jewish film festivals. The young adults are level-headed, articulate, ambitious teens (on both sides) whom we hope will get beyond the tribal battles of their parents and ancestors. There is spectacular footage of Israel (including the north, near the Golan Heights) and the West Bank. There is always the question of the details of the political battles, when put up against all of this as a human rights issue.  I asked in the discussion whether the various settlements back in 1917 through 1948 had violated the “property rights” of individual Palestinian in the areas, and the bifurcated answer of speaker Eric Black (from the Minneapolis Star Tribune) ranged from addressing the lack of a legal basis for individual property rights back in Ottoman times, to and admission that financial remedies (as opposed to expulsions and settlements) could be useful. 

 

Promises (2001, New Yorker, dir. Carlos Bolado, B. Z. Goldberg, in Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles, 106 min) This is another documentary about Jewish and Palestinian children living in Jerusalem, and toward the end of the film they are put in touch with one another. The film starts out by explaining the concept of intifada, and how an earlier one in the 90s seemed to suggest a reconciliation, whereas in 2000 a new one led to Palestinian violence (this was about the time of the Cole bombing in Yemen). The movie explains that the 1967 war resulted in Israel taking over the West Bank and Gaza, and expropriating land from individual Palestinians. (But in 1948 land had been expropriated from Palestinians living in what is now Israel). Through many interviews with kids, mostly of middle school age, on both sides, the film conveys the kids’ perceptions of the religious politics. The Jewish kids tend to believe that they are entitled to the land collectively because they won it in conflict, and because the Old Testament promised it to them. (The story of how Jacob – the “smooth” brother – got the name of Israel is mentioned. I remember Sunday School teachers stopping in discussing Jacob and Esau, as to who was more of a “man”. It was always tricky.) One of the kids (early) says that Saddam Hussein would not attack them in Jerusalem, as if the secular Saddam were the enemy (rather than Osama bin Laden). The Palestinian kids halfway understand that land was taken by force, but probably not as a libertarian would understand it; their views tend to be religious, too. When the kids do meet, the play soccer and even have wrestling matches. The film mentions compulsory military service in Israel, but ultra-orthodox Jews are exempt for special religious schools. There is an epilogue, two years later, when things are worse because of the intifada and the kids, now older, can question the collective religious politics as it affects them individually. The film has spectacular on-location photography of all of the areas of Jerusalem and some of the surrounding areas (including a visit to a prison for Palestinians), but it would have been good to see a wider aspect ratio.

 

The DVD contains a supplementary half-hour short “Updates of the Kids” made in 2004, where five of the seven, now about 17, talk. One of them was in the Israeli Army and not available, and Sholom preferred not to speak from his ultra-religious rabbinical studies. One Palestinian emigrated to Amherst (Ohio?) and was working in a Wal-Mart, and was acclimated to western values. Another Palestinian kid still insisted that land was taken from his parents by force (true). The DVD also a couple of deleted scenes, including a visit to the Knesset by one kid. The preparations for the 2002 Academy Award are shown. They didn’t win, but they made a solidarity and peace statement broadcast in LA anyway. There was a CBS “60 Minutes” interview with disturbing talk of suicide bombers that CBS would not license for use in the film. The DVD also included a 10-minute PBS “Globetrekkers” short. It would help if the menus on DVDs would give the times for all of the extras.

 

In Bethlehem Diary (2001, Proxima) Antonia Caccia provides a vivid account of life in the Nativity city on the West Bank during the 2000 to early 2001 Intifada, but before the 9-11 attacks in the U.S.  The pictures of the modern settlements under construction above the town, above a tunnel, are quite striking and give the viewer a sense of the provocation.  On the other hand, How I Learned To Overcome My Fear and Love of Arik Sharon (1997, Proxima) seems dated and of limited appeal outside Israel, given the current situation.

 

Gaza Strip (2002, Arab Film / Little Red Button, dir. James Longley, 74 min, Arabic) depicts life among ordinary Palestinians living on the Gaza Strip in early 2001 (before 9/11) in the 2000 intifada. A sequence where Palestinian teens suffer apparent nerve gas damage from Israeli shells is particularly harrowing. Everything is real and on location. On Jan. 23, 2008, rebels torn down some of the fence separating Gaza from Egypt and many Palestinians went into Egypt. Story on CNN. 

 

Israel in a Time of Terror (2002, Dennis Prager Films, dir. Allen Estrin, 25 min). Blogger.

 

To Die in Jerusalem (2007, HBO / EJH, dir. Hilla Medalia, 75 min) is a stunning docudrama that sets up a video confrontation between a Palestinian (in “Bethelhem County”) and a Jewish Mother in 2006, four years after the Jewish girl Rachel Levy died in a suicide bombing by Palestinian girl Ayat Al-Akhras.  I covered this more at my review of “The Bubble” (below).

 

Waltz with Bashir (“Vals im Bashir”, Sony Pictures Classic, dir. Ari Forman) Rotoscopic animation film account of 1982 Beirut massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalangists, with filmmaker discovering his own role, as Israeli soldiers flounder on the side, and realize this is like their own Holocaust. Blogger. 

 

Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains (2007, Sony Pictures Classics / Participant, dir. Jonathan Demme, 126 min, PG) is a documentary dealing mainly with former President Carter’s controversial book “Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid” (2007, Simon & Shuster). The film follows Carter around the country as he speaks about the book. The use of the word “apartheid” in the title, a metaphor comparing Israel to the former South Africa, is offensive to many. But Carter, with many pictures inside the West Bank, especially of The Wall, maintains that Palestinians have been stripped of all of their rights and property and dignity, and movement even within the West Bank is controlled. Israel maintains that the treatment of Palestinians is based on security, and to keep suicide bombers out. Brandeis University refuses to let Carter speak for free, but at the end of the film he does speak. He refuses to debate Alan Dershowitz, who is interviewed separately and claims that the whole issue is that the Palestinians elected Hamas, which is anti-Semitic and intends to wipe out Israel, so there are consequences for the people for electing Hamas. Dershowitz compares this to the Germans electing Hitler in 1932, which he says the other powers in Europe and the US should have responded to immediately.

 

O Jerusalem (2007, Samuel Goldwyn, dir. Elle Choraqui) traces two friends, an Arab and a New York City Jew, in Jerusalem as the State of Israel is born in 1948 and Palestinian resistance is met and brokered to a truce. There are details at this blogger review (with more on the Carter film, too), here.

 

The Washington DC International Film festival treated us to Al-Jazeera Exclusive, dir. Ben Anthony, BBC Films, 60 min , 2003, an inside look of real journalists during the early days of the second Iraq war in March 2003. It starts in Qatar and quickly moves to Baghdad and Bara, showing the shock and awe attack with stunning realism. The voices are heard with elevated pitch, which may be a disguise. Al-Jazeera has received some notoriety for receiving some of Osama bin Laden’s tapes (a clip from one is shown). At one point, the network’s website is hacked by pro-western interests, an odd development as the hackers could not have been amateurs. (I describe a hack of my own site in 2002 at this link.)

 

A related film is Control Room (Magnolia Pictures and 2929 Pictures, 83 min, PG-13, dir. Jehane Noujaim, 2004), which, again based in Qatar, seems to show a lot of the same footage at first but then expands. The main point of the documentary is the spin put on current events (the 2003 Iraq War) by both Al Jazeera but also the American military (ranging from Marine Corps public affairs officer 1LT Rushing who is a bit of the star of this film to Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush himself). There are graphic scenes of civilian injuries, the shock and awe attack, and of Baghdad and rural Iraq. One problem comes out: when someone pays you to deliver their message to the public, you lose the right to speak for yourself. But there is a bit of the style of Michael Moore in the presentation.

 

Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear and the Selling of American Empire (2004, dir. Jeremy Earp, Sut Jhally, 68 min) is not a movie about 9/11, rather an indictment of American imperialism, and the “New American Century,” the idea of military dominance and forced culturation part of neo-conservatism, the Wolfowicz Doctirne. About a year before 9/11, indeed, some conservatives were talking about the need for another “Pearl Harbor” to justify militarization. So make your enemies.

 

We’ve heard these conspiracy theories before, that the Right Wing wants war not only to conquer the world but to conquer ordinary people at home, too. (There is a contradiction here, as ordinary Americans have not been asked directly to sacrifice; rather the losers in the economic wars make the sacrifices, as with the backdoor draft. But there is still the nagging threat that security could be used for draconian enforcement of measures in the Patriot Act and related legislation, hurriedly passed by Congress after the 2001 attacks.) As Clark Kent says once on Smallville, “they are a flawed race, rule them with force!” That is, with Shock and Awe. The actual footage of 9/11 is quite graphic and chilling, even though this is primarily not about that event. More chilling are the photographs of burn victims from the war in Iraq. And equally chilling is the prediction of the film that the ultimate threat to America is not physical catastrophe but financial—we will lose our country because of the debt we are building up with military spending out of proportion to that of our adversaries. That is part of asymmetry. Scott Ritter makes numerous comments to counter Bush and Cheney on Saddam. The filmmakers call the neocons “chicken hawks”—a term usually reserved for older men who offer to become sugar daddies for younger (often homosexual), sometimes underage, sexual partners.

 

Uncovered: The War on Iraq  (2004, dir. Robert Greenwald, 87 min, Cinema Libre, Carolina Productions and Moveon.org), a documentary that puts the Second War on Iraq in the same playing field as the Vietnam war. Note preposition usage– the title says “on Iraq,” not “in Iraq” or “with Iraq.”Technically, the film is simple: in minimal 4:3 digital video, divided into chapters, it seems almost like a slide show of short statements by public figures, sometimes grainy copies off CSPAN, supporting the argument that the War was a NeoConservative con job, an implementation of the New American Century, on the boards the day that Bush took office (or “stole” Florida with the help of the Supreme Court). The movie stars are, of course, George W. Bush (often talking about various weapons of mass destruction in graphic detail), Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, all the way to umpire David Kay, as well as Scott Ritter, who (surprisingly) says he is a Republican and voted for George W. Bush—he just disagrees on Iraq and WMD’s. The film chronicles the “evidence” mounted against Saddam Hussein up to that Feb. 5 2003 presentation by Colin Powell at the United Nations.  Here it seems like the whole UN lecture and slide show (made to look entertaining) was a matter of quibbling. That’s the problem with working for someone else and being their spokesperson—you have to give the spin the boss wants, not expose the whole truth—even if you are a renowned general, authenticated by the establishment, like Gen. Powell.  The “shock and awe” of March 2003 is presented in a series of stills with digital sound, and then follows the analysis of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction—and the earlier spin that it was only a matter of time.

 

Now, I take some exception to those who say that the $87 billion and climbing spent on Iraq could have been spend on domestic programs, especially health care. (I’ve had this argument in the workplace with someone very much displaced by our competitive world.) Every issue has to be analyzed on its own. Perhaps Saddam was trafficking in WMD’s and radioactive materials stolen from the former Soviet Union; then he would not need his own WMD’s, but then why can’t President Bush say so?  What is clear is that Saddam was a very different kind of enemy from Osama bin Laden, as is Kim Sung Il. When is the enemy of my enemy my friend? World politics is anything but simple, and we can’t say on the evidence of this film. But there are strange bedfellows.  

 

Another film from the same director and distributor is Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. (77 min)  Well, no kidding, 20th Century Fox (or Fox Searchlight) will not be the distributor, and Cinema Arts Theater in Fairfax, VA said it wondered if it would ever be able to show a Searchlight film there again. Again, the presentation is a sequence of short clips attacking the journalistic integrity of the Fox News Network. So, of course, I turned on Fox while writing this review. The main point is that Fox has allegedly replaced journalistic integrity with right-wing propaganda. I won’t say that I’ve noticed that personally too much, but the film presents quite an indictment. Ex-employees talk about pressure to be biased, and harassment after they quit. Now, first of all, that is one reason why I personally like owning my own website and, right now, at least, not taking anyone’s money, so I can say what I like. Journalists who work for major media outlets, especially newspapers, are generally held to strict “conflict of interest” rules with regard to outside activity to protect journalistic integrity—yet there have been scandals. But it seems here that employees fear blackballing, and the idea that other media conglomerates will feel the effects of Fox’s approach. Here let me add that I don’t notice any particular political bias in the films that Fox releases—although generally other companies like Lions Gate and New Market have been much more willing to deal with real controversy. It seems that talk radio and cable news is somewhat subject to right-wing bias, just as film and to some extent print media veer to the political left.

 

The film covers the way conservatives have tried to use gay marriage as a polarizing issue, with clever use of buzz words and making a spectacle of public gay marriages at City Hall in San Francisco. Then it migrates to the interview of Jeremy Glick, whose father, a Port Authority employee, died in the 9-11 attacks, but who opposed President Bush’s military policies (even in Afghanistan let alone Iraq). O’Reilly tore him up in the interview and created an ugly scene. Finally, the film claims that Fox was the first network to claim that George W. Bush had won the 2000 election (with the Florida debacle), influencing the other media companies to go along, and compromising the objectivity of the succeeding recount and judicial processes, that all led up the Bush v. Gore case in the Supreme Court.

 

Bush’s Brain (Tartan Pictures, dir. Joseph Mealey, based on the book by James Moore and Wayne Slater, Wiley, 2003, 80 min, PG), presents the cabalistic relationship over the years (since Texas) of George W. Bush with political strategist Karl Rove, who started out life in high school as a geek and debater and quickly moved into Texas politics. The narrative starts with the re-election of Gov. Bill Clements in 1986 (after four years of Mark White), when Rove apparently bugged himself to make it look like the Democrats had done it. I remember that, as I was living in Dallas at the time. The name of the little video film is cute: remember the sci-fi film “Donovan’s Brain” (around 1955), with Lew Ayers? They showed a surgically removed brain that controlled the stock market.

 

Unconstitutional: The War on our Civil Liberties (Public Interest Pictures, ACLU, Cinema Libre, dir. Nonny de la Pena, produced by Robert Greenwald, 2004, 67 min) traces the potential horrors of the USA Patriot Act passed soon after 9/11/2001. As Michael Moore showed in Fahrenheit 9/11 the law was passed with Congress hardly reading it. The film documents the incarceration of Muslims without charge, the sudden deportations (even of teenagers raised here), and the sneak and peak with the provisions for law enforcement to review library records, as if someone’s checking out a book on weapons really means something. The film does not go into the free speech and Internet areas as much as it might, where conceivably amateur webmasters like me might incur liability if their sites are hijacked for terrorist purposes. Indeed, the worst possible (but probably unconstitutional) law that I can imagine would be a presumption of downstream liability if a domain name is spoofed or broken into, or a law requiring compulsory insurance or bonds. There is a natural tendency to assume that business owners should have enough scale to protect the public from bad customers, but very small businesses do not. I don’t put that past the Ashcroft mentality, and we still face a scary future. 

 

On September 12, 2001, I remember watching the FBI surround the Westin Hotel in Boston in its first roundup of possible suspects, and I was happy to see that then, or relieved. But I should not have been, as the road to intrusion on liberties has dropped down a steep slope since.

 

Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election (Cinema Libre, 2004, dir. Robert Greenwald, 57 min) traces the whole sorry spectacle of the Florida debacle in 2000, all the way to the  infamous Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, in which the Court applied its reasoning on this case only. (Scalia, it is argued, should have recused himself because of positions of his sons in the Bush organization.)  It seemed that the whole process was riddled with conflicts of interest, starting with the disenfranchising of low-income voters with mismatches with lists of convicted felons. 

 

Private (2004, Istituto Luce/REA (Italy), dir. Savero Codtanzo, sug. PG-13, 93 min), presents a Palestinian family struggling in a West Bank house taken over by Israeli soldiers. The screenplay presents a study in personal assertiveness and manipulation of people—by the actually likeable and attractive lead Israeli officer (Lior Miller), and by the Palestinian father Mohammed Bakri, who, forced to keep his family cramped in a downstairs living room, lectures his family on his own style of family leadership. This is a world in which tribal and family blood relationships and the individual means relatively little apart from that. The shame that the Palestinian family feels towards the forced takings of its property is apparent. Toward the end one of the boys begins to imagine blowing himself up as a suicide bomber to get rid of the soldiers (and to appease this collective shame, which becomes an unacceptable emotion), but the apotheosis is not shown. Screened at the D.C. International Film Festival in April 2005. In Arabic, Hebrew and some English, but right now only distributed from Italy. Perhaps this would make a good acquisition for NewMarket.

 

Turtles Can Fly (“Lakposhtha ham parvaz mikonand”, 2004, IFC/Mij, dir. Bahman Ghobadi, Iran/Iraq, R) depicts refugee Kurdish children in the hours before the United States invades Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. The kids’ dialogue (I think in Kurdish) is frantic and seems a bit stilted when translated, but visually their journey is harrowing, from crowded city markets (where one kid buys a satellite in partial barter for worthless radios) to the chilly mountainous countryside. One of the kids has lost both arms to a mine, and yet takes care of younger siblings. In one scene the kid disarms a mine with his feet. The “shock and awe” and toppling of Saddam’s Baghdad statute are shown as videos. Then a statute of Saddam is taken down in the Kurd territory, with the arm kept as a souvenir. There are scenes of graphic war injury and maimings, almost on the scale of Saving Private Ryan.

 

Paradise Now (2005, Warner Independent Pictures/Augustus, dir. Hany Abu-Assad, France/Palestine, mostly in Arabic, PG-13, 90 min) is a riveting drama of two childhood friends who as young men are recruited to become suicide bombers and blow themselves up in Tel Aviv. This widescreen film gives us a spectacular visual of the West Bank, particularly around Nablus, as well as Tel Aviv, even with a Samsung ad sporting a gay model. The two friends are Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman). Said is an auto mechanic but is quite good looking and charming. Khaled is a bit more reserved. In an opening scene they sit together overlooking the town, and even do a little pot. They are close, and there is a hint of homoeroticism, but more as simply a psychological component of life in the Middle East, where family and marriage have even more structured meanings. Said is perhaps the more ideological, and pretty soon there are political discussions about the shame of living like prisoners under Israeli occupation, where land and homes are confiscated without compensation. The occupiers want to make themselves into victims, Said says. Soon both young men are recruited. They are told two angels will greet them in Paradise. There is a psychological trap: you die young and quit when you are ahead, never grow old, and know that your life had meaning; you were never forced to live someone else’s life. The title of the movie may not reflect true Islamic ideology, in which Paradise occurs at the end of time. The journey is visually striking. In one scene, it appears that the men have their private parts lathered and shaved (presumably for religious reasons), and then they are taped up with the bombs and timers, and then disguised as Jews under business suits. The border crossing through a wire fence goes wrong as they are chased back. They become separated. The mission aborts. In one embarrassing scene Khaled has the materials removed from his chest. Said toys with trying to remove the bombs from his body, but finally decides to do the mission himself even though it has been canceled.

 

The Terrorist (“Theeviravaathi”; “Le combat d’une vie”, 1999, Phaedra, dir. Santosh Sivan) Malli (Ayesha Dharker) is recruited as a female suicide bomber from Sri Lanker to avenge the death of her brother. She gets pregnant and has to realize she would be sacrificing her own unborn child. Prescient about Mumbai. Blogger.

 

Syriana (2005, Warner Bros./Participant, dir. Stephen Gaghan, R, based on book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism,) is a fictive expansion of the story of a CIA agent in the Middle East. But it picks up the story in the middle, when he (Bob Barnes, played by a now grizzled George Clooney, who fattened up by 40 pounds for the movie) is in Tehran (Iran), and then weaves it together with a number of other interesting characters, including oil derivatives trader Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon, who is shown in one kitchen scene with wife and children, but for real life see http://www.imdb.com/news/wenn/2005-12-09/ ).  Woodman is trying to convince Mohammed Shiek Agiza (Amr Waked) to modernize, although the scenes of his country, with a high rise metroplex in the desert, look like something out of Star Wars. Max Minghella plays Barnes’s college senior son Bobby in a moving father-son lunch scene in Princeton, and this movie is faithful to geographical locations, moving from Washington DC (many recognizable locations) to Cairo, to Texas, Geneva, Beirut, Rockville, even the Ikea Store at the White Flint mall north of Baltimore (close to a Ballys headquarters). The movie often tells us the precise locations. This is usually expensive in terms of union units, so Warner Brothers (which actually invested heavily in the film) put a lot of commendable effort in organizing the workforce to make this full scope film look real. The drama is slow, andante-paced, with a lot of interesting mini-incidents and snapshots of various characters whose lives are slowly coming together in a convoluted way—I can imagine the storyboard database (Microsoft Access, perhaps) that Gaghan used to keep track of the intricacies of his plot; writers of thrillers have to use them.  but toward the end it comes to crises. Bob is kidnapped by Hezbollah and tortured in Beirut—his nails pulled out, and arm and leg hair pulled off with tape in a grotesque scene. [The intensity of that scene seems to be the only reason for the R MPAA rating.] Finally he is released. Director/screenwriter Gaghan says that he had a similar experience in 2002. There is a CIA drone attack to take out the agent in a convoy – they show the attack as being coordinated from Langley in Va.; Damon’s character, next in line, gets roughed up. Then, terrorists stage a USS Cole-style suicide attack on an oil tanker (but does not show the real carnage). [I don’t know how free I should feel to report this, but in June 2004 I received an email “tip” claiming, among other things, that such attacks on tankers would be staged in the Persian Gulf; and, yes, I reported this to authorities.] The film ostensibly deals with profiteering (with back room illegal deals (led by a tycoon played by Chris Cooper—who else?) and Justice Department investigations, all based on the idea that supplies outside the Persian Gulf are running out. Will we face $20 a gallon gasoline or rationing some day? 

 

The Syrian Bride (2004, Koch-Lorber/Studio Canal, dir. Eran Riklis, 97 min, PG-13, France/Israel) certainly buttresses the argument that marriage is about more than love. In this movie, a planned wedding between a woman from the Golan Heights and a Syrian media star Hammed (Makram J. Khoury) is tested as a major diplomatic and political crisis. The marriage is arranged, and she has never met him. All of this highlights the political importance of marriage: the legitimaztion of sexual intercourse and the passing of a bloodline purports to be able to heal an international feud, as it often has in European and even world history. Once she crosses into Syria she cannot return. But Because Israel claims the Golan Heights and her passport is stamped with an Israeli mark, when the moment of truth comes she cannot even be allowed to pass into Syria. A Red Cross volunteer desperately tries to negotiate this away during the past thirty minutes of this spectacular Cinemascope film, that shows great shots of the Heights, Jerusalem and Damascus. A film like this, well presented, may be the only safe way to “see” the area.  

 

The Dreams of Sparrows (2005, Harbringer/Iraq Eye Group, dir. Haydar Daffar, Hauder Mousa Daffar, 74 min) depicts the lives of ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad and Fallujah during the American offensive and occupation. Appreciation of the fall of Sadam varies, as one man had pretended to be insane for four years to escape Saddam. Palestinian refugees had been allowed to live in private housing, and were kicked out and put into tent cities after Saddam fell. Interesting.

 

Free Zone (2005, New Yorker/Agat, dir. Amos Gitai, Israel/France/Belgium/Spain, 90 min, sug PG-13). This is an odd drama set in the Middle East with a skeleton story but lots of political double meaning underneath. The film starts with Rebecca, sitting in a cab, crying, as a song about the costs of things plays in the Jerusalem background. She is upset over breaking up with her fiancé (Aki Avni, shown in flashbacks). Cab driver Hanna (Hana Laszlo) can take her anywhere the driver likes, so she drives to the Free Zone in Jordan to pick up money owed to her by “the American”. She winds up meeting a Palestinian woman Leila (Hiam Abbaas) who joins them on the road trip, which has shown a lot of Holy Land and Jordanian scenery. They find a burned down farm and the story of an American who returned in the 1990s and became a Palestinian. The film keeps opening up in terms of local scenery and adds layers of political dialogues exploring the paradoxes of the problems in the region.

 

The War Tapes (2006, SenArt/Scranton-Lacey, dir. Deborah Scranton, 97 min, PG-13) is a graphic documentary shot by several national guardsmen from New Hampshire during a 2004 tour in Iraq. 64000 of 150000 soldiers in Iraq are guardspersons. Mike Moriarity starts it off with some video of the WTC site the day after 9/11, and then shows the final push of training at Fort Dix, NJ, in the March snow, before they get shipped off.  Moriarity apparently volunteered for the tour, and his wife considers it irresponsible for a husband and father to do that (does that mean that single men are more expendable?)  Another of the wives says that she has never had to be independent before. Other soldiers are Duncan Domey, Steve Pink, Brandon Wilkins, and Zack Bazzi, who will become a naturalized citizen at the end of the movie. The landscapes of the countryside are spectacular, a hot, absolutely flat desert, almost like the Texas high plains. Poorer sections of Baghdad are shown after the many mortar attacks, as is life inside the tents. Cadavers of Iraqis appear, some of them blown in half just as in horror movies. Rather than blogging, the men handwrite diaries that sometimes describe the remains in terms of a butcher shop. At one point, an Iraqi civilian woman is run over by a HumVee. Various companies, some of them affiliated with VP Cheney, earn tremendous profits on this war, such as the company that provides mess at $28 a platter. The film has a long epilogue showing each soldier’s family life as he returns home to New England. Several of the soldiers face a second deployment at any time, a “backdoor draft,” worse than what we had in Vietnam. Pink becomes very cynical, and, with full candor, insists that we accept the fact that we are there for controlling oil. This film was featured in the DC International Film Festival in 2006.

 

My Country, My Country (2005, Zeitgeist/PBS/Praxis, dir. Laura Poitras, 90 min, Unr. but sug PG-13), is a riveting documentary of the Iraqi elections on January 30, 2005, and the months that led up to them. This is not “my country right or wrong.” Filmmaker Poitras did this pretty much by herself, building up her relations with the country as a filmmaker. She appears at platformed screenings, and her discussion of personal security is interesting. Because of the highly political message – that American presence as an occupying force, walling off the Iraqi government in the Green Zone, exacerbates the issue – she has caught the attention of Homeland Security. The film focuses on a Dr. Riyadh and his family, which lives in a plain concrete bungalow. There are many wide shots of Baghdad, which looks like a flat uniform city that goes on for miles, rather like Clive Barker’s First Dominion in Imajica. It seems to be on another planet. The political situation with the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds grows, as the Sunnis appear to withdraw. Briefings by military officers appear, as do various scenes of the Doctor’s family life. Electricity is six hours on, six hours off. Finally the big day comes, and there are long lines outside, with voters going through pat-down security, sometimes by opposite sex members. Manual counting (reminding me of the 2000 chad fiasco in Florida) is shown. At least one black market weapons deal is shown.

 

The Ground Truth: When the Killing Stops (2006, Focus, dir. Patricia Foulkrod, 78 min, R) is a hard-hitting tell-all documentary about the way soldiers sent to Iraq are misled and treated. It starts out with National Guard recruiters saying that NG might only get deployed for a riot or domestic disturbance. Lie.  Basic training is shown, and now it is much more effective than ever in making ordinary people into killing warriors. The emphasis on unit cohesion and group bonding seems particularly motivated by the need to overcome this midbrain aversion to killing a member of one’s own biological species.  (This portrayal of unit cohesion bears thought in view of the moral issues raised by “don’t ask don’t tell” and gays in the military; the gay issue is never mentioned in the film, though.) The film points out that military officers found this out during World War II, and by Vietnam this had changed, although with conscripts it was not easy to enforce. With a “volunteer” (so to speak) military, warrior conversion is a more realistic expectation. Of course, we all know that the current administration is practicing what amounts to a backdoor draft, with multiple tours. During the course of the film, the egregious wounds, amputations and burns are shown, an issue that spouses have to deal with. Many of the men develop PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is argued as having a biological basis. At the end there is a brief scene of the devastation from Hurrican Katrina, and a comparison of the government’s response there to its policy in Iraq.

 

Iraq in Fragments (2006, Typecast/HBO, dir. James Longley, 94 min, would be rated R) is a stunning “cinema verite” style documentary about life in post-Saddam “US occupied” Iraq with three consecutive viginettes told by adolescent boys in Sunni Bagdad, in the Shia South (is it Basra?) and in the Kurdish north. Between the Shiite part and the Kurd part, there is a stunning train ride sequence in fast motion, as one takes in the breathtaking flatness of the Iraqi desert for hundreds of miles. The psychological effect of the film is a bit like that of Babel, and it even portrays Iraq as a kind of extraterrestrial place, with the three “fragments” rather like reconciled Dominions in Clive Barker’s Imajica. The technical filmmaking is astounding, and I don’t know how the director got his cameras into the most intimate corners of Iraq and could film the insurgent attacks in the south as they happened and the harrowing and graphic wounds and medical treatment without anesthesia. The last second, in the north, is the most lyrical, as an teenage boy, who might have gay leanings (in a most prohibitionistic Islamic environment), is learning to accept his lot in life as a sheep farmer, with a father (with five other sons) who wants nothing from this worldly life. The imagery of the brick kilns, sheep herding, fires, and even the light snow scene, already melting quickly on the bare ground, is stunning. The prayer scenes capture the religious fervor of the men, and the odd kind of collective male bonding that marks Islamic society. The magnificence of the mosaic-colored Shiite mosques contrasts with the shabby living conditions. It would have been nice to see a shot of the marsh Arabs, who were displaced by Saddam. This film is the most compelling of all of those to come from Iraq live.

 

Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers (2006, Brave New Films, dir. Robert Greenwald, 75 min, NR but would be R for disturbing prison nudity) is a scathing documentary of the profiteering by contracting companies doing business in Iraq, especially since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The major companies include Halliburton, CACI, Titan, and KBR (“Kill Bag Replace”).  Even back in Vietnam days, there was a gradual tendency to replace some military housekeeping or quartermaster chores with civilians (such as KP, after my own Basic). But here major duties like guarding prisoners can be taken over by civilian companies. In fact, a few of the Abu Ghraib photos were shown, and they were quite graphic, some prisoners nude and seriously injured or beaten. Soldiers would have an incentive to get honorable discharges and come back and work as civilians making six times as much. One soldier mentioned the idea that “eating was good for your pocketbook” – eat so much to become obese in order to get kicked out, and come back as a civilian. He claimed that this had happened. Although the movie doesn’t say this, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that a soldier could “tell” and get discharged under “don’t ask don’t tell” for homosexuality, and then try to come back. I don’t know what a contractor’s policy would be (maybe having an open gay in a Muslim area is still a problem). But in the 1990s I took a transfer within a civilian company after a merger because I did not think that I should work on military business since I was fighting the ban. All of this came to mind to me as I watched this film. The issue that some civilians had been killed came up, as did the carelessness of the companies about employee safety. Companies overcharged the government by huge factors, charging $100 for a $3 laundry job, and companies did not maintain motor pool equipment well since “cost plus” provisions in contracts encouraged them to spend even more. The closing credits of the movie show Greenwald and his assistants trying to get the companies to be interviewed in order to rebut the charges, and all refused. One would wonder about the ethics of the lobbying firms that these companies use and the lack of congressional oversight (they are more concerned about gay marriage than about overseeing contracts in Iraq

 

Greenwald mentions that when a military servicemember kills a local person, he or she is courts-martialed. A civilian is send home and can come back the next week with a different company. In fact, companies have hired local civilian translators with little screening, while the military has trouble recruiting and training them (and “don’t ask don’t tell” has figured in here). If the charges against these companies and their associated politicians hold up, you will see more people go to jail over this one. ). It would seem to me that a number of politicians (mostly Republicans) could be brought down by criminal conflict of interest or inside trading investigations. Will some grand juries get started on this matter?

 

The visitor may want to read Mark Hemingway’s article “Warriors for Hire: Blackwater USA and the rise of private military contractors” in The Weekly Standard, Dec. 18, 2006, p. 23. Blackwater is near the North Carolina Outer Banks, with a PO Box at Moyock, NC.

 

The Situation (2006, Shadow/Red Wine, dir. Philip Haas, sug. R, 106 min) purports to be the first fiction drama set in the present day war in Iraq. It was actually filmed in Morocco, although it looks genuine. Connie Nielsen plays Anna Molyneux, a journalist who wants to get at the truth of the death of two Iraqis pushed off a bridge by American officers. CIA operative Dan Murphy (Damian Lewis) really believes in the “democratization”, but local photographer Bashar (Omar Berdouni) has other ideas. A love triangle develops, but some of the other incidental characters appeal much more. At the end, she has to face the awful duplicity of both American and Iraqi forces, and there is a brutal conclusion. 

 

The Shape of the Future (2005, Cinema Libre / UDC, dir. L. Allen Scheid, 96 min, TV) is a two-part documentary that proposes a conceptual solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The first part suggests that Jerusalem become a capital of two separate states. The second part, after showing the hardships imposed on individual Palestinians by the events of 1948 and again 1967, proposes a Palestinian state without the right of return.  I attempted to view this film with the Netflix “Play” facility; more here.

 

No End in Sight (2007, Magnolia / Red Envelope, dir. Charles Ferguson, 102 min, USA) is a stunning new documentary that outline’s the Bush’s strategic and tactical policy bunders in handling Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Here is a complete review on blogger.

 

Taxi to the Dark Side (2007, ThinkFilm / Discovery, dir. Alex Gilbey, 110 min, R) starts with the arrest of an Afghan taxi driver Dilawar and proceeds to develop a searing documentary of US abuses in Bagram prison in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and GTMO.  Graphic pictures of prisoners in male nude with private parts, in various positions of forced intimacy, women’s clothes, restraint, sleep deprivation are shown; the Muslim insult of shaving is mentioned. Blogger discussion is here.

 

Meeting Resistance (2007, Wellspring / Goldcrest / Nine Lives, dir. Molly Bingham and Steve Connors), a documentary from the POV of Iraqi insurgents, blogger review here.

 

Redacted (2007, Magnolia / HDNet, dir. Brian de Palma, 90 min, R) This experimental narration of what is wrong in Iraq tried to tell a story of an American atrocity and the events that caused it through the eyes of soldiers, especially one soldier Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) who joined the Army to earn film school tuition and get real world experience, which he videos as he lives it. So this is one of those “art create life” films, here in war. When some Americans shoot some Iraqis who bust a checkpoint (the Checkpoint is set up as a short in French), local insurgents retaliate against the soldiers. So some soldiers one night perpetrate a raid leading to the rape of a 15 year old girl and the pillaging of her family. The militants take revenge by decapitating Angel (that scene is quite graphic).  Much of the story is told through security videos or YouTube videos on an Arab website, much as in the style of “Southland Tales”. Other soldiers (especially Reno Flake, played by Patrick Carroll) interact as GI’s over do, with gutter talk, calling people names (“faggot”, etc) but seem surprisingly live.

 

Although this movie may be perceived as a political indictment of the war (and the war we conduct it) it is itself a movie about how telling a story can create one.  Filmed in Jordan, with a lot of live footage and stills from Baghdad. The film ends with stills of Iraqi casualties while the end of Puccini’s Tosca plays.

 

Persepolis (2007, Sony Pictures Classics / Diaphana / Kennedy-Marshall, dir. wr. Vincent Parannoud, Marjane Sartrapi, comic by Marjane Sartrapi, 95 min, France, PG-13) is an interesting animated film (mostly black and white) about a girl who comes of age in Iran (with some time in Vienna, winding up in France). Blogger.

 

Fighting for Life (2008, Truly Indie / American Film Institute, dir. Terry Sanders, 89 min, sug R) is a harrowing documentary of military medical care of the wounded from Iraq, and of the Uniformed Services University of Health Science (USU) that trains them. Blogger.  

 

Body of War (2007, Film Sales / Mobilus, dir. Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro, 85 min, sug. R) is a graphic documentary about a young paralyzed veteran, Tomas Young, returned from Iraq with a spinal gunshot wound. There is a lot of focus on sexual and intimate performance (he marries after he returns home, and his wife finds that the challenge is indeed more than anyone would imagine) that is as graphic as ever seen in film. Blogger. 

 

The Tiger and the Snow (“La Tigre e la neve,” 2005, Focus, dir. Roberto Benigni, Italy, 110 min, R) Roberto Begnini plays an Italian poet Attilo de Giovani who travels to Iraq just before the American invasion to save his beloved (real life wife Nicoletta Brashi). He hooks up win an Iraqi exile from France (Jean Reno). He confounds all odds, including some American soldiers who would laugh at his being a “poet.”  Mixed with the comedy are the scenes of destruction and violence predicting what is soon to come.  There is an amusing reference to the Tower of Babel.

 

W. (2008, LionsGate, dir, Oliver Stone, PG-13) is a satire in which Josh Brolin plays George W. Bush at all stages of his life (without much change in appearance) in a movie told in flashbacks, leading up to our involvement in Iraq. Richard Dreyfuss is delicious and creepy as Dick Cheney and Toby Jones as the cretin-looking Karl Rove. The writing by Stanley Weiser is brilliant and shows how W. skims his mind along the top notes. Blogger

 

Taking Chance (2009, HBO, dir. Ross Katz, 78 min, PG) A Marine corps staff officer (Kevin Bacon) volunteers for escort duty for a victim of the Iraq war PFC Chance) and it becomes self-discovery.  Blogger.

 

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009, Overture, dir. Grant Heslov, UK).  George Clooney teaches reporter Ewan McGregor in the Kuwaiti desert the virtues of remote viewing and psychic warfare.  Blogger.

 

Dear John (2010, Screen Gems, dir. Lasse Halstrom).  Channing Tatum plays a special forces ranger with a long distance relationship that gets tested, especially by 9/11 and Afghanistan. Blogger.

 

Collateral Murder (2010/2007, Wikileaks, 39 min) Wikileaks decrypts a killing field video of American choppers gunning down civilians in Iraq. Blogger.

 

Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (2007, Docudrama/New Video, dir. Richard Robbins, 81 min). Blogger.

Budrus (2010, Balcony Releasing/Just Vision, dir. Julia Bacha). Blogger

Encounter Point (2006, Typecast Releasing/Just Vision, dir. Julia Bacha) Blogger..

 

 

Extra:

 

On September 2, 2006, media outlets reported a 48-minute video from Ayman Al-Zawahiri and an American from California, Adam Gadahn, telling all Americans that they have a “last best chance” to convert to Islam. CNN shows a little of the video on its website. The video apparently maintains that natural conversion of Americans to (radical) Islam is a threat to non-Muslims. Ironically, on the same day of the videotape’s relase (Sept. 2, 2006), Al Qaeda's # 2 operative in Iraq, Hamed Juma Faris al-Suaidi, was arrested.

 

The History Channel offers a 4:42 video “Band of Bloggers: War Through a Soldier’s Eyes” photographed by Sgt. Robert Statum, USArmy, here. The action takes place on a rooftop of an Iraqi home. There are expletives (PG-13?)

 

 

 A general remark here (late 2002). A number of Hollywood personalities (Sean Penn, above, and Matt Damon) have expressed grave concerns or opposition to war with Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. There are number of small films like these, generally available from very small (usually foreign) distributors and individuals or obtainable only by campus organizations like the film society at the University of Minnesota. They are often leftist in origin (though not always, as some rather “hawkish” films on the Taliban by journalists like Sebastian Junger have been shown on CNN and MSNBC). It does strike me that companies like Miramax, Discovery Channel, Alllianz Atlantis (Bowling for Columbine) do have the resources to pull this material together after purchasing rights, and make technically compelling objective presentations (at least for “arthouse” theatrical release). If personalities like those mentioned care enough to make their comments, they ought to be able to invest in films like these. They certainly have the brains to pull a project like this off, and I could help them. 

  

Related reviews: Bowling for Columbine   The War Within  Voices of Iraq  Ghosts of Abu Ghraib   The Bubble (Eytan Fox)  Frontline: Bush’s War   Stop-Loss

 

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(Review written March 2002; ÓCopyright 2002 by Bill Boushka, subject to normal Fair Use)