My Country, My Country

My Country, My Country


Reviewed by: Chris

Sometimes when a very different culture is in the news one can feel bombarded by ideology, attention-grabbing news clips and death reported as a daily occurrence. It can become difficult to imagine the folk of that country as ordinary people the same as you or I, reasonable, trying to do their jobs and maybe make sense of the world around them, or having normal, caring interactions with their families. How can you get to the point of recording that honestly on film, especially if just being there may influence what you are told and also carry the risk of getting your head blown off?

To intrepid documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, this was apparently no obstacle. She spent hours and hours not just with policy-makers but with one particular family until they trusted her so much she could just wander into their living room and capture conversations unheeded. No crew, just her and a translator.

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'My Country, My Country' follows the period of the January 2005 Iraqi elections mostly through the eyes of one man, Dr Riyadh, who operates a free medical clinic in Baghdad. Poitras perhaps felt that by focusing on a doctor she could minimise political overtones in the film - Riyadh is educated, a family man (he has six children) and in a job where the day to day struggle of helping the sick takes priority over all else. If she has achieved this lack of political judgementalism however, it is in no small part due to looking and finding the best motives, arguments, realistic assessments and good will, on all sides. Remarkably, there is no attempt to portray anyone in a bad light. At a time when many people are asking, "How can we improve the situation," rather than allocating blame, using the best examples of what exists already is not a bad starting point.

'My Country, My Country' has no voice-over. The starting point of the film is when Riyadh's wife asks him, "Are you going to vote?" and we sense that the question is a heavy one. They have just eaten breakfast together (with no electricity), but the flashback that is the rest of the film shows the emotional tensions that such a question involves. The journey that we take with the Riyadhs is both traumatic and enlightening. As we travel through their increasingly battered life in horribly battered Baghdad - the capital of a country Riyadh genuinely loves - we are struck first of all by Poitras' camerawork: we are used to footage of Iraq that simply concentrates on war reportage, so it is refreshing to see professional work that instead pays attention to composition, light and shade, and the use of colour. It feels fresh and intimate as the lens explores the shattered city and broken architecture, people's expressions or the beauty of nature, a simple shepherd with his flock on the hills. This cleverly allows us to get a feel for the place in a way that we are not used to when it comes to Iraq.

Persuaded perhaps by friends and patients, Dr Riyadh decides to stand for election in a minority party. When the day comes he naturally wants his family to turn out and vote as well. Yet there is an atmosphere of death threats and assassinations. The insurgents have promised that those who turn up to vote will shed rivers of blood. As each of the family members returns from the polling booth, they excitedly display the ink-marked finger. There is a mixture of pride, daring and adrenaline-fuelled excitement at the new experience, plus an admission that they hid the inkstain on the way back in case it prompted an attack.

In an earlier scene, Riyadh's adolescent daughter, bubbling about merrily (as teenagers do), is thrown off guard by a rocket exploding nearby, and doesn't know whether to run and see it or hide in the cupboard. The real bombshells though are emotional ones. A fellow physician is visiting, telling the family how his son has been kidnapped that morning. He told the American soldiers, who were very sympathetic. As he gives his account, he is repeatedly trying to phone the kidnappers but can't get through. Suddenly he realises that the phone has been left on between attempts and the conversation overheard. The insurgents tell him he will be killed.

Equally moving is the time when Riyadh goes to the fence of Abu Ghraib prison and realises there is a nine year old boy being held captive. Or the time when an American officer, briefing his men, remembers to mention two of his team who have been lost: at first it seems like he is following form, but then his voice cracks and he breaks down for several moments, controlling emotion with difficulty as he says, "They are with us every day." Tears are shed, and they are not tears of fanatical fervour. 'My Country, My Country' is not a film about hotheads: it is a chance for us to follow the conversations and understanding of intelligent, well-meaning people on all sides, and their efforts (sometimes superhuman).

Dr Riyadh's daughter has voted - for the first time in her life. Her excitement and youthfulness suggests the hope of a new beginning. The haunting words of the title song cry plaintively: "My country, my country, I yearn to see you smile some day. When will sadness set you free?" Of all the films I have so far seen from Iraq, I cannot think of one that has moved me so much.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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The 2005 elections seen through the eyes of an ordinary Iraqi man.
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Read more My Country, My Country reviews:

Amber Wilkinson ****

Director: Laura Poitras

Year: 2006

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: USA

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