Return of the Newsreel: News From Iraq Not Seen on TV

Susan Chenelle Mar 17, 2005


If there is one thing regarding the war in Iraq that most people agree on, it’s that the entire story is not being portrayed in the mainstream media. Those who support the war complain that the so-called “liberal” media is overly negative, while those against the war accuse the corporate media of compliantly facilitating the Bush administration’s agenda. The surge in widely distributed documentary films has provided supplementary material in this ongoing cultural conversation. Two very different recently released projects now add to the mix.

Filmmaker Michael Tucker went to Iraq to produce a film on the security business in Baghdad. After getting to know many of the American soldiers during his time there, he decided to produce another film to tell their stories. He spent two months in 2003 embedded with the 2/3 Field Artillery, living with them in a bombed-out palace of Uday Hussein, now nicknamed “Gunner Palace.”

Tucker interviews the troops in moments of sheer boredom and tense anticipation, relaxing in the palace’s pool and patrolling the streets of Baghdad. He follows them on various operations, in which they break down doors, raid the homes of suspected bomb builders, and hand out propaganda leaflets as part of “psyops” missions. However, the view he presents of all of this expresses quite clearly the limitations of the embedded journalist.

The film often seems like an episode of COPS set in the Middle East. Riding along with them in their Humvees, Tucker films the soldiers in tight close-ups, looking up at them, as they talk about what it’s like being in Iraq. The troops are young, rugged, and almost never without a big gun or a guitar in their hands. While the soldiers’ insights into why they are there and how they feel about what they’ve done there are often compelling, Tucker offers no context for their words or actions. He never talks to any Iraqis who aren’t assisting the coalition forces, and he cuts away whenever any real action starts to go down, ensuring that viewers never see the soldiers do anything remotely questionable. The deepest conclusion offered is that war is hell.

Though produced with almost no budget, and cut almost entirely by Tucker on his computer while still in Iraq, there is nothing raw or unfiltered about this film. Rather it is highly manipulative: Many of the scenes seem staged, and the footage itself is processed to appear grainy, like how war footage is “supposed” to look.

While it apparently meant something to these soldiers that someone would see what they are going through and hear what they have to say about it, it also seems like performing for Tucker’s camera is yet another form of exploitation they are willing to give themselves up to. In the end, “Gunner Palace” does a disservice to these soldiers, the film’s viewers, and, probably most of all, the Iraqi people by not asking deeper questions.

Deep Dish TV’s 12-episode project is almost the diametric opposite-both its strengths and weaknesses derive from the breadth of its material. The sum of the efforts of numerous independent film producers and editors, “Shocking and Awful” covers many of the critical narratives regarding the war in Iraq that are downplayed if not entirely ignored by the mainstream media.

Each show pulls together shorter segments by various producers under titles like, “Standing With the Women of Iraq,” and “Empire and Oil.” While this offers a wealth of perspectives, it also makes some episodes seem unfocused. As a whole, however, the series impresses and inspires by featuring the voices of real people surviving in horrific circumstances and dedicating their lives to working for a better world.

“The Real Face of Occupation” lets Iraqis themselves describe what living under decades of brutal dictatorship and now the devastation of war does to people. For anyone whose anger over the war has been deadened by frustration, these personal indictments of the occupation from the people suffering it will re-awaken you. “National Insecurity,” dedicated to the late Farouk Abdel-Muhti, tells the stories of the hundreds who were rounded up and detained after 9/11. “Globalization at Gunpoint” features interviews with Naomi Klein, and examines the real aims behind the socalled “War on Terror.”

The most striking episode is the final one, “Baghdad.” A montage of disparate footage from before and after the invasion, the film demands the engagement of the viewer by presenting an array of often terrifying scenes, with no subtitles or captions as explanation. It induces in its audience a tiny bit of the maddening, desperate confusion of existence in Baghdad, and then rewards its attention with evidence that life and joy nevertheless endure there.

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