Thursday, August 10, 2006


My Country, My Country*

Laura Poitras’s documentary on the tense and often terrifying moments
leading up to the 2005 Iraqi elections credibly shows a crumbled society grasping for some semblance of individuality— and ultimately failing to achieve it. But unlike its contemporaries in cinema’s latest nonfiction trend, My Country, My Country is less focused on the questionable behavior of US troops or the American government’s belligerent democratization tactics than it is on the jaded outlook of a people resigned to a structurally inept existence. The Sunnis, who were largely (and predictably) absent from the polls on that fateful day, appear to regard the voting process as little more than a media puppet show.

Poitras focuses on the grassroots campaigning of Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni political candidate running without a leg to stand on, unless the support of his family counts. His passionate rallying against national violence never quite catches fire, unlike the bombings instigated by insurgents, which provide a fearsome backdrop. Following Riyadh as he searches for voter interest among his peers, Poitras successfully captures his inability to stir the interest of fellow Sunnis who have resigned themselves to apathy. “Extremism turns me off,” one resident explains with an eerie smile.

The members of the military who do appear in the film seem equally inefficient and absurdly extraneous. In a scene that could function as a skit on The Colbert Report, a soldier explains the mindset of a hypothetical disinterested Sunni by conjuring a fictional “Joe Iraqi.” The understated implication requires no skillful translator: Something has been drastically lost in translation.

My Country, My Country is urgently paced, packed with countless details demonstrating the Americanized voting methodology. The leisurely viewer may get overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the process, but it is no more bewildering than the war itself. Being swept up in the grim anticipation of a zero sum finale is a rare, poetic experience that deserves to be felt. The haunting theme song by Kadhum Al Sahir begs for the Iraqi people to get optimistic, but that hopefulness is contrasted with an unsettling degree of detachment.

*A version of this review appears this week in the New York Press.


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