By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “My Country, My Country,” Zeitgeist Films, 2006]
We should all be “fair and balanced” when it comes to characterizations of the current Iraq war, which would mean you’d think an ethical approach for documentaries that would entail prioritizing the suffering, deaths, injustice and damage as endured by invadees over that of the invaders. Right? Poles over Nazis, Afghanis over Russians? During the American-Vietnam War, the documentaries (from Emile de Antonio’s “In the Year of the Pig” to Peter Davis’s “Hearts and Minds” and beyond) guiltily mourned the bloodcurdling horror inflicted upon the Indochinese. (Only years later did Hollywood dare to portray that absurd conflict exclusively as an American trauma.) In Iraq today, there doesn’t seem to be any bones about it: we invaded and occupied the crumbling nation à propos of nothing, killed anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 civilians (the high number is courtesy of UK medical journal The Lancet, which has little history of politically gaming stats), and argue at home about whether we’re sufficiently “supporting” the troops as they “surge,” and not about how we paid and are still paying for all of that blood and ruin with our tax dollars, and why our elected leaders shouldn’t be prosecuted as war criminals.
The documentaries we’ve gotten, however, have tended to shed sympathetic tears only for the American soldiers, compelled by who knows what propagandized baloney to sacrifice their lives and limbs (in relatively minor numbers), and to kill Arab men, women and children in their own streets. (Prime example: Deborah Scranton’s award-winning “The War Tapes,” which, being soldier-shot, weeps and shudders for the Yanks but disdainfully observes the indigenous populace from a distance as if they were hyenas on the veldt.) The best exception to this xenophobia is still Laura Poitras’ “My Country, My Country” (2006), the most sensible film yet about the occupation, and as a counterpoint against acres of corporate-spun non-news, it is indispensable. Time and again, in the months leading up to the 2005 elections, Poitras manages to be where platoons of U.S. telejournalists were afraid to go. Her hero is a Sunni activist-doctor named Riyadh, a clear-thinking, educated everyman on a quiet crusade in and around the Triangle to repair whatever damage he can, and to get as many Sunnis to vote as possible even if it’s not for him. (Anti-secularist that he is, he deserves a bumper magnet.) It’s a project that even takes him to the fences around Abu Ghraib: “We’re an occupied country with a puppet government,” Dr. Riyadh says to the pleading prisoners, “what do you expect?”
But Poitras, traveling alone, also rides with the Kurdish militia, records U.S. military briefings, attends outraged public hearings, listens in on security contractors trying to make sense out of chaos and sits in Sunni living rooms as shells fall in the street. She never intrudes on her own movie; what we see, remarkably, has the electric heat of a new experience, of seeing what has been heretofore officially proscribed. Best of all, the film is so immaculately constructed that it cannot be dismissed with charges of partisan subjectivity Poitras covers the waterfront as she avoids ideology and cant, and yet everything that unfolds, from the combat-copter rides over Baghdad to the Arab TV footage of the Fallujah bombing, is first-hand evidence of an illegal occupation, an oppressed native people, and an abundance of needless pain and decimation. Without uttering a word herself, she calls the cards on every prevaricating pundit and politician blathering about “the enemy.”
In other news: if you love Asian pulp Japanese, Korean, Thai, what have you sooner or later you’re going to find yourself pondering what life must be like in East Asian public schools. While the predominant crucible at work in the heart of American pulp may be the family, in Japan etc. the tribulation of the classroom haunts the cultural psyche. I couldn’t begin to count the number of recent Asian horror films, thrillers, fantasies and heartbroken melodramas fueled at their center by the slights and wounds of their countries’ respective educational systems, the primal traumas of which spawn endless explosions of slaughter, chaos, derangement, infinite woe and evil craziness. (You might begin with “Battle Royale,” “Oldboy,” “Peppermint Candy,” “The Power of Kangwon Province,” “Memento Mori,” “Bounce Ko Gals,” “Ringu,” “Bungee Jumping of Their Own” and so on.) Which brings us to the unpretentious glories of Lim Dae-woong’s “Bloody Reunion” (also known as “Seuseung-ui eunhye,” and “To Sir with Love,” and “The Teacher”), a simple but full-blooded Korean slasher film that probes the high-school-memories dynamic with a laser. Schoolmates now in their 20s collect at the secluded home of a beloved, ailing teacher for an ad-hoc reunion; when the truth slowly emerges from underneath the Asian sense of propriety (the teacher was in fact an abusive horror, and all of the kids are scarred for life), a killer begins kidnapping them and torturing them to death. If you’re looking for a metaphor for what may well be a real and pervasive social wound, you can hardly get more outraged and mournful. The movie may not be terribly scary who’s titillated by slasher films anymore? but as yet another elegy for a generation of Asian walking wounded, it’s fascinating.
“My Country, My Country” (Zeitgeist) will be released on DVD on March 20th; “Bloody Reunion” (Tartan Video) is now available on DVD.