With utter predictability, the recent Lancet study (.pdf file) proclaiming that America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq has resulted in nearly 655,000 Iraqi deaths, has now become a political football. Though certainly well-intentioned, this infallibly researched and thoroughly peer-reviewed study and the reaction it has engendered still shows that when it comes to death, torture, killing, suffering, and incomprehensible loss, most sides with something to say on the issue fall back on abstractions, on numbers bereft of anything but soulless data points. Just as war has been rendered by the aggressors as a video game of sorties and smart bombs, so too have the death tallies become the “top score” everyone is trying to best. Spinning the tallies this way and that only serves to highlight how far away we have removed ourselves from the incontrovertible fact that people — people, not statistics — are being killed.
Can not anyone anymore say simply, one death is one too many?
Next week PBS in America will be showing the film My Country, My Country as part of their P.O.V. series. It airs Wednesday, October 25, at 9 p.m. (check your local listings). I strongly urge anyone with access to the network to watch it, or to set the TIVO/DVD recorder/VCR to record it.
I’m going to recommend this film to you not because of its politics or because of its merits, but based solely on the person who made it. This is something I’m normally not wont to do, but here I will make an exception. That is because I know Laura Poitras, the person behind this film. She is a friend of mine. There are few people in my life I have more respect for than Laura. There are few people I know who embody the concepts of commitment and integrity with more clarity than Laura.
Laura spent eight months in Iraq (from June 2004 to February 2005), working by herself, to shoot and record the material for this film. To state the obvious, she did this at great personal risk not only to herself but to those Iraqis who agreed to let her into their lives, their homes, their stories. While on one hand this level of personal risk is simply unfathomable to me, on the other hand I’m not at all surprised. It is the Laura I know.
Explaining her reasons for going to Iraq and making this film, Laura says:
I risked my life to make this film because I felt that I had a certain skill set that could be brought to bear on understanding this war in terms of being able to tell the story of the war in images, through people. The news was never going to do it; the news would always be headlines about statistics and bombs going off, and I knew I could be patient and tell a story with the subtlety of things unfolding, which I believe has a greater impact in creating understanding. Hopefully, that’s one of the things the film accomplishes.
Laura Poitras and I were both students in the SFAI film department in the late 80’s/early 90’s. I didn’t know her at first, she having gotten there ahead of me, but she was one of those like myself who seemed to be at every film screening of the San Francisco Cinematheque or the PFA and therefore I took notice. I gathered from observation and from others that she was opinionated, didn’t mince words, took no prisoners. While that ultimately turned out not to be true, for she was always asking, What do you think?, she nevertheless cut such a forthright and assured figure. She intimidated the hell out of me.
We eventually did meet, become friends, and ended up collaborating on several levels, at school and at the Cinematheque. We had many intense discussions, and not a few differences of opinion. But I never stopped being in awe of her. In awe not of her opinions, but by the passion behind them; not of her actions, but by the clearness of purpose that informed them. I can’t even begin to quantify how much I learned from her.
The other day while cleaning out some boxes, I came across a copy of a note I had written to her while were both collaborating on a publication for the Cinematheque. There had been a disagreement about the cover design. I had to laugh at how inflamed we could get in those days about what now all these years later can only be seen as the most trivial of things.
For various reasons owing all to me I fell out of touch with Laura in recent years until earlier this year when another friend of mine passed on word about this film. It was a shot out of the blue. But then again, the trajectory her career has taken to bring her to this film is hardly surprising. That arc was already starting to be written back then, 15-plus years ago, and while the brainstorming and the opinions and the discussions were no doubt trivial, it is clear the passion, commitment, and integrity that defined her back then have not only remained, but grown and matured, giving us an artist who can tell us a story about that which can never be regarded as trivial.
I don’t mean to imply that the Lancet study trivializes death. However, while the study should be applauded if it somehow helps America recover from the collective and wilful blind eye it has been turning, it has still unfortunately been played into a meaningless numbers game: overestimates, underestimates, How much is enough?, When does the number become too high?, or shudderingly, The toll will surely continue to rise.
Contrary to received wisdom, we mustn’t lose sight of the smaller picture. Therefore, I have a different tally to propose, infinitely simpler to comprehend, more difficult to abstract, and ultimately much more illuminating. One. As in one human being, one story. One by one, let us get back to something more basic, more concrete, more grounded in humanity than body counts and news tickers.
Laura’s film is one such attempt to stem the tide, to return to one person, one story. I hope you will make an effort to see it.
(There is a wealth of information about the film, how it was made, and why it was made, at PBS’s website for the film. There you will find a trailer for the film, interviews with Laura, a production journal, as well as an mp3 of the film’s haunting theme music (written for the film by world-renowned Iraqi singer and composer Kadhum Al Sahir), and a podcast of a conversation between Laura and George Packer, who wrote the original New Yorker piece that provided the inspiration for the film project.)