Little Birds (Ritoru Baazu-Iraku Senka No Kazoku-Tachi) (2004)
Dir. Takeharu Watai
At a time when the U.S.-led war in Iraq continues to be a defining issue in U.S. cultural, it is ironic that the most powerful and uncompromising documentary on the subject remains almost entirely unknown and unseen in this country.
It took Japanese filmmaker Takeharu Watai a year and a half to film more than 120 hours of footage in Iraq, which he managed to edit down to just two. The result is the stunning Little Birds, which plunges the viewer into the middle of the war, in all its sorrow and horror, and never lets up.
The film opens on the streets of Baghdad, just days before the war. Life appears ordinary, but this is belied by an underlying tension as Iraqis express their thoughts on the impending assault. It is not long before bombs and missiles are raining down on Baghdad, and the violence is all the more shocking for the scenes of normality that preceded it.
In contrast to the sanitized images the Western public continues to be fed after three years of gruesome war, this documentary gives it to you straight. Homes are destroyed, civilians are torn apart by bombs, and blood is spattered everywhere.
We are introduced to victims of U.S. cluster bomb attacks, including a young girl with shrapnel embedded in an eye. “We don’t kill innocent people,” insists a U.S. soldier at one point in the film, but everywhere the evidence contradicts him. Cluster bombs, anti-personnel in nature, could have no other result than to kill innocent people, dropped as they were in residential neighborhoods.
Contrary to claims by the Bush administration that Iraqi civilians would greet U.S. troops as liberators, we see tanks and vehicles rolling down deserted Baghdad streets as residents nervously watch from their windows. Later, the film takes us to several mass demonstrations in opposition to occupation, in which the anger is only magnified by the death and destruction we have witnessed.
Among the interviews with U.S. soldiers some parrot the pro-war line. But others, sensitive enough to recognize that reality is at stark contrast with the propaganda, are clearly uncomfortable with the filmmaker’s direct questions. “They don’t understand why they are in Iraq,” explained Watai in an interview. “They say ‘to liberate the Iraqi people or help them,’ but they are just saying that. It’s not from deep in their minds.”
The U.S. documentaries on the subject of Iraq that I have seen tend to tell the stories of Americans in Iraq and inform us of what we already know. Watai, however, has a more empathetic approach, forcing us to acknowledge what the war has done to the Iraqi people. As a result, we discover far more about the war and the disaster it has wrought on the society. The filmmaker had confidence enough in his material to forgo music and narration, and indeed, none was needed. Little Birds is a film of such power that it leaves its audience speechless at the end.
It is a shame that this brilliant documentary remains without distribution in the United States. Little Birds ought to be required viewing for anyone still clinging to the notion of war as a selfless act of heroic benevolence.
Gregory Elich is the author of Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem, and The Pursuit of Profit.