Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge (Canada/USA, 2004, Director: Stephen Marshall, 84 minutes): Most of the documentaries produced about the Iraq war (and also, for that matter, the Vietnam War) have really been about ourselves. Our motives, our politics, our guilt. What Stephen Marshall has done in Battleground is let us see the war from the perspective of ordinary Iraqis. This is even more remarkable when it’s noted that Marshall, one of the founders of the Guerrilla News Network, admits that much of his previous work was “agitprop”, slanted and polemical. That this film, shot over three weeks in late 2003, is so balanced is thanks in part to a little bit of serendipity.
On the plane to Jordan, Marshall sits next to Farhan (or “Frank” as he now calls himself), a beefy Iraqi-American on his way back to try to find the family he left behind after the first Iraq war. Heeding the encouragement of the first President Bush after Iraq’s army had been pushed out of Kuwait, Farhan joined other Shia Muslims in rising up against the regime of Saddam Hussein. But when Saddam began airstrikes against the rebels, the Americans did nothing, and 100,000 Iraqis perished. Farhan was lucky. He was shot and tortured, but managed to get out of the country with the help of some American soldiers. Fearful of reprisals against his family, he spent 13 years in America without making contact and now he’s returning, not knowing even if any of his family are left alive. This storyline alone would have made a compelling and heartbreaking film, but Marshall weaves Farhan’s story throughout the film, including several tearfully joyous reunions.
There is also Raed Jarrar, an engineer (and incidentally, one of Iraq’s most famous bloggers) monitoring the presence of depleted uranium in American shells used against Iraqi targets. With his Geiger counter, he goes from place to place trying to warn people away from areas of contamination, but with little success. Poor Iraqis melt down the shells and tank wrecks to sell for scrap iron. Contaminated scrap iron.
Then there is the female translator who longs for a return to the days of Saddam, arguing with the Egyptian businessman who thinks the American defeat of Iraq will help it join other “losers” like Germany and Japan into developing into an economic powerhouse. And the American tank commander who cynically predicts that the war isn’t about democracy or oil, but about geopolitical strategic interests, “over the next fifty to a hundred years.”
One thing stood about all the Iraqis in the film. Like any other culture, and especially one with thousands of years of history, the Iraqis are a very proud people. The worst thing about the current occupation is that it is humiliating for the Iraqis. First they were humiliated by Saddam, and now by the Americans. This is something that the American army doesn’t seem to understand yet, how powerful this feeling is, especially when it becomes a rallying point for the insurgency. Even though there are lots of political, ethnic and religious factions in the country, they may yet unite around a shared sense of humiliation, and then things could get even uglier.
All in all, this was a riveting journey into a war zone. And instead of focussing on the explosions, as our simple-minded media have been doing, the film feeds the hunger of viewers like me to see real Iraqis, living their lives under such incredible pressures. There are all kinds of opinions, from full support of the Americans to outright hostility, but people are eager to speak their minds. One of the film’s most moving moments came near the end, when a man said (in my rough paraphrase), “The Iraqis are not the enemies of America. America should stop creating enemies for itself and instead create friends. You can never feel safe in the world if you don’t create friends instead of enemies.” I only hope this film helps even a little bit.