Whose Country?

Laura Poitras, Director of My Country, My Country, in
Conversation.

by Molly Freedenberg

mycountrymycountry.photo02.jpgSparked 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.

mycountrymycountry.photo01.jpgWhat 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.

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