Laura Poitras, Director of My Country, My Country, in Conversation.
by Molly Freedenberg
Sparked by a sense of despair about the war in Iraq and inspired by an article in the New Yorker, Laura Poitras set out on a dangerous, difficult, and ultimately rewarding film project: to express the complexities of the situation in Iraq through the eyes of Iraqis. By herself. Without speaking Arabic. The result is the engaging My Country, My Country, a documentary that follows Sunni physician and political candidate Dr. Riyadh in the months leading up to Iraq’s first democratic elections. Poitras gives viewers a firsthand look at Iraqis’ ambivalence about the occupation, the election, and even resistance fighters. Thanks to Poitras’s remarkable access to Riyadh’s home and medical clinic and to official military meetings, the film presents a perspective of the Iraqi occupation that we haven’t seen before.
Why did you film this movie alone? Wouldn’t it have been easier, and less dangerous, with a crew? Maybe, but it allows me to be certain places I never would have been if I had a crew. When I walked into military meetings, people didn’t challenge me. I just sat down and pulled out my camera, more like a tourist. It was also easier for me to travel: I could find a space on a helicopter or in a car. I could live with Dr. Riyadh. It was incredibly dangerous. People threatened me. But I believe what protected me was working with somebody who’s respected in the community, not traveling with bodyguards and guns. It was more protection in terms of the structure of society. I didn’t necessarily feel safer when I was with people who had guns.
What about being a woman in this notoriously male-centric culture? It was actually very helpful. In the culture, there’s a pretty big division between genders. Being a woman allowed me to be with the women in the family and hang out and live there with them, which would have been inappropriate if I were a man. But being a Western woman also allowed me to hang out in very male environments.
But how did you even know what was going on if you didn’t speak the language? I wouldn’t have thought it possible. But there were scenes I was filming that, even though I didn’t speak the language, I knew would be wonderful. As a filmmaker, you just know. Like the night before the election, when they’re sitting around and the lights are out and they’re talking about the situation, it’s a poignant scene — so I film it, and it’s a wonderful surprise when I come back and get the translations.
What should we learn from the film? To understand the situation not just from an American perspective, but from an Iraqi perspective. Iraqis are just trying to sort of rescue their country. The stakes are a lot higher for them — it’s not just an ideological debate. I feel it’s important for us to confront Islamic people as human beings, to understand them and see them as not so different from us. People will disagree about the film as they do about the war, but my hope is that it challenges people no matter where they are on the political spectrum.
4•1•1 My Country, My Country is being screened by UCSB Arts & Lectures at Campbell Hall on Wednesday, August 30, 7:30 p.m. See www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu or call 893-3535.