The PBS documentary series “P.O.V.” concludes its 2006 season tonight with “My Country, My Country,” which chronicles the run-up to the 2005 Iraqi elections.
The genius of filmmaker Laura Poitras’ approach, however, doesn’t lie in her decision to include coalition forces trying to manage and protect those democratic elections. That’s gripping and important footage, to be sure, but Poitras performed an important service for viewers by telling the story largely through the eyes and experience of Dr. Riyadh, a devout Sunni Muslim who put his name on the ballot—and thus his family in harm’s way.
Poitras worked alone in Iraq for eight months, from June 2004 to February 2005, spending time with the U.S. Army’s Civil Affairs Command and filming inside the “Green Zone,” which is the hub of the U.S. occupation.
She soon met Riyadh while he was documenting conditions at Abu Ghraib after the abuses came to light, and decided his point of view would be a valuable asset.
She was right.
Riyadh gives “My Country, My Country” and the elections the human dimension that is so often missing in news reports. Riyadh’s story certainly can’t be digested to five minutes on the nightly news. Here, he gets close to 90 minutes.
We see him practicing medicine, parenting his children, trying to convince his Sunni neighbors to take part in the elections—an issue central to the documentary and the elections themselves.
Riyadh rarely smiles, in contrast to his daughters, who manage to joke about “the resistance” wanting to kill them after they vote.
Riyadh, in fact, considers himself part of the resistance—a civil one. He believes Sunnis should participate in the elections in order not to be sidelined in the future. His stance puts him at odds with just about everyone: Americans don’t consider him an ally, and Sunnis think he’s wrong-headed to buy into the electoral process.
Riyadh gives money to those in need one moment, and in another screams to Abu Ghraib detainees who demand more than he can give: “We are an occupied country with a puppet government. What do you expect?”
Poitras shifts between Riyadh’s daily life—which here is absolutely fascinating and anything but “ordinary”—and the efforts by coalition forces to organize the elections. That includes training locals for security, transporting ballots and boxes, and instructing American forces to take a back seat so the elections will be seen as a homegrown effort.
One American, in charge of training Iraqis who will help secure polling locations, characterizes election day as a “show” that will be seen by the whole world. This is curious for two reasons.
First, the notion needs some clarification for the Iraqis in the seminar, as if—understandably—the characterization is inappropriate given the fact that militants are killing election workers.
Second, Americans in the documentary “Control Room,” which looks at the al-Jazeera network, use the same kind of rhetoric to describe some of the news coverage of the war.
We Americans, it seems, aren’t very good at distinguishing grave circumstances from entertainment. If we do know the difference, we don’t often act like it.
Poitras can help us in this regard—though the American government has thanked her by putting her on the Department of Homeland Security’s watch list.
“My Country, My Country” is an example of what one courageous filmmaker can accomplish.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
P.O.V.’s official Web site is here.
The P.O.V. “My Country, My Country” Web site is here. (It includes a discussion guide and many more good materials.)
Read our reviews of other “P.O.V.” documentaries: