For me, it all began with a simple e-mail. Bassam Haddad, a friend of a friend, asked to talk with me about an Iraq documentary project. A quick e-mail-tag, and then I was engaged in an enticing hour and a half telephone conversation. I was lured in.
From: Bassam Haddad
Sent: Monday, June 16, 2003 4:28 PM
I'm a friend of As`ad's and also know of you from various circles. I would like to speak with you regarding an Iraq documentary project on which a group of colleagues and I are embarking. I understand that Adam Shapiro discussed this with you during the early stages. We are now well under way, and was hoping we could talk sometime soon.
My mobile number is [...]
Are you in town?
The premise of this documentary was simply irresistible: to break down the binary of Saddam vs. the United States and reveal the real, complex situation, and to do this by following Sinan Antoon, an exiled Iraqi-American writer and poet, as he returns to Baghdad after 13 years. Brilliant. There was so much in that simple idea that I loved. For the years that I have been working on the Iraq issue--from anti-sanctions (and anti-bombings) in the '90s, to anti-invasion/anti-war in 2003, and now anti-occupation--I've been plagued by this wall, this myth of being either pro-Saddam and thus anti-U.S. policy, or anti-Saddam and thus pro-U.S. policy, this good vs. evil binary. Since I was opposed to the sanctions on Iraq, then clearly I must be in support of Saddam Hussein. And now, since I remain opposed to the occupation, then, again, clearly I must be yearning for the good old days of Saddam Hussein.
A documentary that tackles this destructive, limiting thought process would be tremendous! And then to have this documentary go beyond simply breaking down this binary, and to use the narrative of an exiled Iraqi as he returns to his battered city, to see Baghdad through his eyes--and for that poet to be Sinan Antoon, someone I have admired for years, whose poetry and prose cut through the fog of the press--how could I possibly resist supporting this project?
A Prism; Wet With Wars
By Sinan Antoon
this is the chapter of
this is our oasis
an angle where wars intersect
tyrants accumulate around our eyes
in the shackle's verandah
there is enough space for applause
let us applaud
another evening climbs
the city's candles
technological hoofs crush the night
a people is being slaughtered across short waves
but the radio vomits raw statements
and urges us to applaud
with a skeleton of a burning umbrella
we receive this rain
a god sleeps on our flag
but the horizon is prophetless
maybe they will come if we
let us applaud
we will baptize our infants with smoke
plough their tongues
with flagrant war songs
or UN resolutions
teach them the bray of slogans
and leave them beside burning nipples
in an imminent wreckage
before we weave an autumn for tyrants
we must cross this galaxy of barbed wires and keep on repeating
HAPPY NEW WAR!
Baghdad, March 1991
Translated from the Arabic by the poet
"Yes, I'm on board, of course, what can I do?" I told Bassam. I had collaborated on documentaries before, such as the 1999 Silent Weapon: The Embargo Against Iraq. In that case, though, I was interviewed on-camera and advised off-camera. Simple. About Baghdad was not going to be that kind of production, and would require more than an easy time commitment. I discovered this only one day later, when I received an e-mail from Bassam: it was 7:30 a.m., and he still hadn't slept.
From: Bassam Haddad
Sent: Tuesday, June 17, 2003 7:33 AM
To: Rania Masri
Subject: Sabah il-kheir
Ma`oul, it's 7:30 am and I haven't gone to sleep? I was with Sinan on msn for several hours drafting a skeleton/daily schedule for the documentary. I'll probably be getting into bed while you jump into the shower.
I'm glad you're excited about the project, and we would appreciate your help immensely. We can delve deeper into details later, if you are so inclined.
A mere few weeks after Bassam brought me on board, Bassam, Sinan, Adam Shapiro, Maya Mikdashi and Suzy Salamy went to Iraq and began the three weeks of 7 a.m.-to-curfew filming days. Amazingly, they did a wonderful job of keeping in touch with the rest of the team--Nadya Sbaiti, Sherene Seikaly, Dirar Hakeem and me.
In Baghdad, the five-member team interviewed Iraqis from all walks of life, asking them how they felt about the legacy of living under Saddam's dictatorship and going through three wars, sanctions, and now the occupation. In addition to recording these voices that are rarely heard and rarely listened to, the team was able to get interviews and footage in remarkable places such as the Iraq-Iran War Memorial, which has been transformed into a U.S. military base; the Baghdad insane asylum, months after it was ransacked by a mob when U.S. tanks overran the hospital walls; and the first public commemoration for the people of Al-Dijayl, who had attempted to assassinate Saddam Hussein in 1982.
And then there were little gifts from chance, such as when the team happened upon an Iraqi band practicing and met amer Tawfiq, a brilliant Iraqi singer, musician and veteran instructor at the Institute of Music Studies in Baghdad. This sweet opportunity led to the production of the film's soundtrack: Tawfiq performing classic Iraqi songs, recorded in the occupied capital.
There were surprises, as well. We had all expected the sense of anger and outrage in Iraq to be high. Yet, what the Baghdad team discovered was there was more fatigue than anger in Iraq. And as much as they had envisioned the destruction inflicted upon Baghdad, it was, as Sinan said in a recent interview with "Democracy Now" host and executive producer Amy Goodman, "very shocking to see the actual destruction, not just of the war, but, to me, the most damaging--and that's what a lot of people in our film also say--the most damaging is to the social fabric of Iraq. The destruction of the structure of Iraqi society had gone on for a long time, started by Saddam as he was aided by the United States, but the crucial, crucial factor is the 13 years of sanctions, which really had driven Iraq to the edge. So that the war was the final blow. And, to me, it was just really depressing to see how drained and destroyed Iraqis are. I mean, they're still resilient, at least, when we were there, and wanted to rebuild the country. But, the core of the society that was supposed to rebuild Iraq, the intelligencia, the middle class, is completely destroyed."
The scene in Baghdad that best captured the mood of the city was a spontaneous interaction with a man on the street who approached the camera and said, "The student has gone, and the master is here. That summarizes everything. And the people are the victim."
The Baghdad team returned to the United States in August, and had the difficult task of parsing 70 hours of footage into a 15-minute trailer, then into a feature documentary. But first, some decisions had to be made: What was the narrative? How would we coordinate efforts among research, promotion, fundraising, and grant writing? How would we consider translators and transcribers? And on and on and on. After months of work, during which, I must confess, I was in constant awe at the non-stop energy of the team, our trailer was completed. Now began the trailer screenings across the country (and also in Beirut, Haifa, and Ramallah), and the incorporation of the feedback from those screenings. Our meetings went late into the night (or into the mornings for Nadya, working in Beirut, and Sherene, working in Haifa). Months later, we had produced the first draft of the documentary, and thus began the (seemingly endless) checking the sound and color quality, the small details.
I remember when I received the first draft copy of the documentary in the mail. I had been frustrated, angry and drained--all at once--after an NBC-17 "At Issue" debate. "So, aren't the Iraqis better off now than they were under Saddam?" Steve Johns had asked
. I sighed, and tried in vain to explain before I was interrupted by Donna Martinez, representing the right and very much fitting the part. Here we go again, I thought--another binary presentation, and a refusal to examine the issue from a wider, deeper, more honest context. Hopefully, About Baghdad will tear holes in this binary myth.
Though the documentary is complete and will be screened in the Triangle exactly one year after I received that first e-mail from Bassam, our work is not finished. We are still raising funds to cover our production costs and focusing our efforts on publicizing the film, showing it at film festivals around the world, and creating a DVD information package to accompany it.
Meanwhile, almost a year after the team went to Baghdad, the United States course of action in Iraq hasn't changed, and won't change after the "transfer of sovereignty" on June 30. This "sovereignty" consists of a foreign occupying army, foreign control of the army, foreign control of the country's revenues and no lawmaking authority. While the press discusses who will be appointed by the U.S. administration as the Iraqi "prime minister" or "president," actual authority will be given to John Negroponte, the "U.S. Ambassador to Iraq." Any major decision will require his approval. Despite these facts (as reported by The Wall Street Journal, among others), the media still talks of a "sovereign Iraq" come June 30. Their blind acceptance of the administration's rhetoric is reminiscent of their continued blind acceptance of the Saddam vs. the United States binary (and all the other good vs. evil binaries promoted these days by Bush and company).
For me, the struggle isn't only one of breaking through these false perceptions--the more fundamental struggle I battle with daily is sustaining hope. Some of that hope is now fueled by our team. Despite us all having full-time jobs or being full-time students, we still managed to produce this unique documentary. More hope is sustained by images the team brought home from Baghdad, namely the one of Iraqi musicians, who not only were creating beautiful music, but doing so joyously, and laughing, living, refusing to succumb to sorrow and despair.
Sinan Antoon is a doctoral candidate in Arabic literature at Harvard University and teaches Arabic at Dartmouth. He has published articles and poems in both Arabic and English in The Nation, al-Ahram Weekly, MERIP, al-Adaab, as-Safir, and an-Nahar. His poems were anthologized in Iraqi Poetry Today. His first novel, I`jaam, was published by Dar al-Adab in Beirut and is being translated into English. A collection of his poems in Arabic was published by MERIT Books in Cairo. He is senior editor at the Arab Studies Journal.
Bassam Haddad is assistant professor in the political science department at St. Joseph's University. He is the editor of the Arab Studies Journal.
Dirar Hakeem is a network engineer and has extensive experience in the IT field as a senior consultant.
Rania Masri is a fellow at the Institute for Southern Studies, a writer, and an activist. Her writings have been published in the following books: Iraq: A Liberated Country?, Iraq: Its History, People and Politics, Iraq Under Siege, and The Struggle for Palestine.
Maya Mikdashi is a master's student in the Arab studies program at Georgetown University. She has worked in television, film and print media. She holds an undergraduate degree in radio, television and film with a minor in theater from the Lebanese American University in Beirut, Lebanon.
Suzy Salamy is a filmmaker and activist living and working in New York City. She will soon be releasing her first feature documentary, Palestine is Waiting, with Falafel Daddy Productions.
Nadya Sbaiti is a doctoral candidate in the history department at Georgetown University. She is a senior editor at the Arab Studies Journal.
Sherene Seikaly is a doctoral candidate in the history department at New York University. She is a senior editor at the Arab Studies Journal.
Adam Shapiro is a doctoral candidate in international relations at American University. He is also an organizer and activist with the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine. He earned a master's from Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and a master's from New York University's politics department.