Monday, March 27, 2006

Iraq In Fragments - James Longley Interview - Pt. 2 - Mohammed of Baghdad

Q: How did you come to meet your first subject, Mohammed Haithem?

A: Mohammed Haithem Majid. You know it's weird, because in the Arab world people go by the name of a tribe like Al-Jiburi or Al-Dulami or something like that and then there is what you call people, it's always like the person's name and then their father's first name and then their grandfather's first name and that's how people are referred to. So, Mohammed Haithem Majid. His name is Mohammed, his father's name is Haithem and his grandfather's name is Majid, which I think is poorly understood in the West and then who knows what his tribe is? But that's how people are identified. I had been to that neighborhood in 2002 when I was there the first time. If you go to my website there's some still photographs of pre-war Baghdad. Some of those still photographs are taken in the same neighborhood in 2002, before the war, and so I think it was a Canadian sculptor who was working in Baghdad then, for some reason, that I met who said 'You're looking for locations in Baghdad to film. You should check out this neighborhood, the Sheikh Omar neighborhood. It's very colorful, there are people working all the time, there's all kinds of welding and building and things going on constantly and it's very atmospheric. You should check it out." So, I went there and took a bunch of pictures before the war and then, after the war, when I was thinking, where am I going to go to find a subject for my first section, I decided just to go back there, because it was a place that I knew already and if you're making a verite documentary film it's important to have a situation where people are working, they're not only going to be interested in you and your camera, they're going to have things to do. So this kind of neighborhood was really perfect for that, because it's a place were there's basically these small one-room shops next to each other for the length of an entire city block or two. And so there's all these characters, they're there constantly every day, the same people, they're always working, they're always up to something or if they're not working they're always sitting around, shooting the shit with each other. So, I went back there and I went from shop to shop with my camera and would take people at random and say, 'I'm making a documentary film, tell me about yourself' and sort of went along looking for good characters, people who were able to speak in front of a camera who had interesting stories. You know, I was looking for a younger person, but I interviewed people from 13, 14 to 20, 25. All men, of course, because in that neighborhood the only people who were out, the only people who were working are men. There are no women. And most of the time you won't even see a girl on the street. Very male. All the women are inside or they're somewhere else. This is the nature of the society. And I came across this kid. I think I was in an adjoining shop and they said, 'Oh, you're looking for a character. You should interview Mohammed.'

And he was like, not exactly the mascot of the neighborhood, but he was a kid who everyone knew because he had been there for years and years, even though he was only eleven. And he had this kind of,AeP he was a little kid, he was someone you looked at and instantly felt this kind of empathy with and he had this kind of charisma, but at the same time,AeP he invited different things at once. On the one hand, he was a little kid, on the other hand he had been working around these older men for years and years and had adopted their way of speaking and their body language and everything else and he was sort of comfortable in that environment and less so in the company of his peers and so he had this very interesting kind of personality and he's constantly daydreaming, he's constantly slipping off into his own little world and he seems to forget about what's going on around him, even though he might be working on something, but at the same time he's in another place and you can sort of see exactly what he's thinking, written on his face. Like you can see that he's thinking all the time. You might not know exactly about what, but you could see him go from being happy to being serious and thoughtful. And that by itself made him kind of interesting as a documentary subject, because in a film while you're basically asking the audience to go into a place they've never been in before, something new that they haven't seen before, it's much easier to do it through the eyes of a young person, of a kid, because you relate to them as a kid. And children see the world in a different way then we do as adults, where we sort of already understand everything and nothing is surprising to us, nothing is new. In the case of a kid it's completely different, they take the world much more seriously and in a much more open-eyed kind of way. Because of Mohammed's personality, you could also see the world through him, because he was constantly reacting to it unconsciously and it wasn't that he was going to be the narrator, who was going to explain the politics or whatever of the situation. He was going to be the lens, the window through which the audience saw this world. That's the way I saw him as a character when I started filming and I pretty much developed it as that. Where there were at least two story strands, about his own personal story and also the things that were happening around him in the bigger society.
Q: Needless to say, he's a very compelling subject. Have you, by any chance, kept in touch with him? Do you have any sense of what he's up to?
A: It's very difficult to keep in touch with most of these people, because there's no,AeP they don't use e-mail, they don't speak English. But I have kept in touch with the translators that I worked with. Some of them have left the country now, but there are others who are still living in Baghdad and they use e-mail and I basically sent one on an errand to go to his neighborhood and find out how he is, back in November, and at that time he was working at his uncle's shop, not his boss, where he was before, and the translator friend of mine said he's still exactly the same only his voice has changed.
Q: So he's still with his uncle's shop?
A: Yeah.
Q: Oh, that's very good. It seemed like he was very happy with that change.
A: Right. Of course, it would have been nicer for him to actually continue in school, which he didn't do, but you know, what can you do. I guess he wasn't really fated to be an educated person.
Q: In the production notes you said that after days of filming Mohammed you would spend evenings translating the material and layering it on an Apple laptop to build a picture of him and the world around him. Was that pre-editing? Were you editing what you had shot?
A: Sometimes. I did edit scenes together before I came back. For example, the alcohol raid scene. I edited a version of that, that's very close to what's in the final film, pretty much right after I filmed it. So the initial edit of that scene was back in February of 2004 and what's in the film is not changed very much at all from that. There are also scenes,AeP the initial edit of Chapter 1, Mohammed's chapter, was 45-minutes. Right now in the film it's a little less than 30. So there was an extra fifteen minutes of material that was cut out. Entire other scenes where there were altercations with the boss, where the boss is slapping him around and accusing him of losing tools and things like that, that are cut out of the film, because of time constraints. But the first 45-minute edit of Chapter 1 I did completely by myself in Iraq and sent out. There was someone leaving, a friend of mine, Aaron Glantz, who was my roommate in Baghdad, and also in Northern Iraq, a radio journalist. He also wrote a book, How America Lost Iraq, and was on a book tour here. Anyway, nice guy. He took a DVD that I had burned of the rough draft of this chapter and brought it back to the United States and it was sent to the Sundance Institute along with a copy of Gaza Strip and a copy of a grant application and that was the first step in getting funding from them, from the documentary fund. So, I was editing the film in Iraq prior to coming back, but the bulk of the work in terms of cutting the film was done here in Seattle.
Q: The film is obviously focused on the Iraqi people, but you do see the US military presence as these, kind of, distant sentinels. What was, if any, your personal relationship with the military? Did you have to interact with them in any way? Did you get know any of the soldiers personally?
A: In the beginning you could, kind of, come up to the US military on the street, the soldiers, and talk with them fairly easily. Then, as time went on, and the relationship between the population and the military worsened, it became more difficult. In the beginning you would see these truckloads of US soldiers going around, open in the back, Humvees and stuff like that, and after a while you would never see that anymore. You wouldn't see soldiers by themselves. I remember in the Summer of 2003 you could see a male and female US soldier in uniform walking together, buying ice cream on the street in Baghdad. There was a completely different atmosphere in the beginning where people were kind of curious, but mostly tolerant of the United States and at that time it felt like, maybe if the US played their cards right, they could get exactly what they wanted, which was a country that was essentially welcoming to them and would be accepting of whatever direction they wanted to try to push the country in. I think it was only because of the total amazing incompetence of the American administration in Washington DC and also in Baghdad that this failed to materialize. Because I think the majority of Iraqis were really willing to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt, much more than, say, the American left was about the war. Most people in Iraq did not like the Saddam Hussein regime, they wanted it to fall. And they were happy that the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein. I mean, that's the reality. The reality for most people, including most of the Shia and lot of the Sunni, ordinary Sunni people who were not involved in the regime. They were perfectly happy to have the government gone, but they were also very surprised that United States came in, overthrew the government, and then just sort of stood around and let everything go to hell. And people did not see this influx of billions of dollars of reconstruction money. The reconstruction that was done was very superficial, painting schools or painting a hospital. But it wasn't like the actual on-the-ground stuff. I mean hospitals were in worse shape after the war than they were under the sanctions period when they really had to struggle just to get basic medications. After the war they weren't getting those medications at all, because the sanctions ended, which meant the oil-for-food program ended, oil production itself was basically stopped in the country for a long period of time. Even now it's only a million barrels a day, which is far less than it was during the 90's under sanctions. And you went from a very bad situation under the regime and under sanctions to an even worse situation, where there was no government at all and no organization to the kind of aid that was coming in, which was far more limited, even than it was under the sanctions period. So, the Iraqis were surprised and disappointed by the kind of structural failures of the occupation. The failure to rebuild the kind of institutions that you would need to stabilize the country internally without having it be a police state, a security-driven state. So, by that I mean, aid distribution, health care, the water system, the electricity system, transportation and whatnot. So it was kind of this amazing lack of organization, lack of planning, and just general incompetence and this sort of attitude of 'you can't do anything yourselves, we won't let you do anything yourselves, but at the same time we are not going to do anything for you, because it has to be done by an Iraqi government and an Iraqi government has not yet been formed.' So they didn't want militias to spring up to do policing, for example, but at the same time they weren't doing any of the police work, so the militias sprang up to do it. And this is just one example. Anyway, the failures of the occupation are myriad and legion and one could go on and on,AeP
Q: If the military wasn't any particular kind of help, were they ever an impediment to you? Did you actually know any soldiers yourself?
A: Well, I had a cousin who was a soldier in Baghdad at the same time that I was there. This guy from the Texas side of my family and he sent me e-mails to say, you know, I'm with the whatever division of whatever doing bomb cleanup or something like that and he was stationed across the Tigris river from me in Baghdad. And I would e-mail back and forth with him. He didn't know anything about what was going on in the country. A year into the occupation he still thought they were looking for weapons of mass destruction when the United States government had already declared the search was over. And he didn't know anything about what was going on outside Baghdad. You know, what roads were open or closed at various times. It became apparent to me that if he was a typical soldier, that the soldiers themselves didn't really have very much idea what was taking place outside their eyesight and earshot. And that was kind of strange. I never saw him when I was in Iraq. They can't go off of their military base and just walk over to your hotel. There's no way for them to do that. And, also, I didn't want to go onto their military base, because there are people watching you, what you do. If you, as an American civilian, are going onto a US military base and coming off of it multiple times, suddenly people are going to say well this guy is involved with the military.
Q: So they weren't ever a help. Were they ever a hindrance to you?
A: A hindrance. No. I tended to stay away from the US military in Iraq. If you wanted to get up-close personal stuff with the US military in a film you basically had to embed with them. It was the only way of doing it. And friends of mine did that, filmmakers, writers and it was interesting material that they got. For the purposes of my film I felt the obvious thing to do for an American in Iraq is to embed with the US military and film the perspective of US soldiers. It's not an easy story to make, but it's easier than trying to do a film about the Iraqis themselves, because you have these English speaking characters that everyone can identify with. It fits into every war movie you've ever seen. It's very easy to conceptualize it, to understand it. It's an easier movie to make. So, I basically figured that there would be people making this movie and I wasn't wrong. There are at least two feature documentaries released in the United States, Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland that focus entirely on the US military presence. And of course there was this PBS Frontline series which is all about the US military and then there were fictional accounts while the war was still going on like Over There, whatever this television show that was produced, that's maybe still being produced, I'm not sure. So this perspective is really covered and I just decided a) I don't want to do what everyone else is doing, even though, who knows, maybe I'll do it better, maybe I'll do it worse, but it's going to be done already and no one is going to pay attention to my movie if I come out a year after these other films and it's the same kind of subject and b) it's a security issue. Like I say, if you spend time going in and out of US military installations, that is going to be very difficult for you to reconcile with people coming to ask you 'what the hell are you doing.' No one's going to believe you if you say you're making a documentary about the US military. Everyone's going to think you are a spy for them or something else. So, it's a hairy situation, security-wise, to film the US military and also because the US military are targeted by the insurgency. So, as many journalists have discovered, if you travel around with US military you wind up in the middle of a roadside bombing, or something like that, and it's a dangerous thing. Also, there's another reason, which is that the US military was spending a lot of time going on raids, breaking into people's houses, arresting people in the dead of night, putting bags over their heads and taking them to prison without trial and it's not that isn't an important story that you shouldn't document, but after having spent a long time living in Iraq with Iraqis in a civilian house. The house of one of my translators, I lived nine months there. You started to feel very uncomfortable with the idea of being with a band of Americans, who don't really know that much about the local culture, breaking into people's houses that they don't know, walking all over their floor with their boots on, and taking away the men. I didn't want to do that, even as a journalist not connected to the military.
Q: Did they ever get in your way, did they ever prevent you from doing anything?
A: Well, if I had wanted to go to Falluja, for example, it would have been during the siege of April of 2004. It would have been very difficult, because the US military was blocking off the roads. However, I didn't try to do that, not because of the US military, but because of the local insurgency, because they were not necessarily respecting the civilian status of journalists and that situation became worse and worse. Right now you can't walk down the street in Baghdad securely as a foreign civilian, but at that time it was sort of the beginning of the end and it was clear that, after several people were kidnapped and executed and journalists were being mowed down in their cars, going from one place to another, and friends of mine were being kidnapped. It was clear that the bigger worry was the insurgency. I mean, if you're a journalist in a war zone, most of the time, I think, people who go into that kind of a situation are willing to accept a fairly high level of risk and most of the time that level of acceptable risk includes all the risks that the ordinary civilian population faces on a day-to-day basis, whether it's being shot at a checkpoint or getting blown up by a car bomb driving down the street or what have you. These risks are real, everyone lives with these risks. So, you figure that a lot of civilians are getting killed every single day in Baghdad, well it's possible you also will be killed by chance, because of the fighting back and forth and the explosions and whatnot. That's, I think, by most conflict journalists or war journalists, considered an acceptable level of risk that you can live with, because everybody in this society is living with that. However, when it becomes a situation where, because you're a foreigner, because you're a journalist, you're being singled out and targeted for kidnapping or attack, suddenly that's a completely different level of risk that you are involved with and I think that most people start to draw the line around there. I remember, right after the war, there was a war correspondent, who had covered everything from Kosovo to god-knows back into the Central American wars of the 80's, who was in Baghdad and I remember him saying 'when they kill the first journalist I'm out of here.',AeP laughs. And that's because, you know, he knows how it's going to go. Once you start killing journalists, then it's like there is this line that gets broken and it suddenly becomes socially acceptable to,AeP the society begins to sort of assume that journalists are fair game as well in this conflict and once you lose that layer of invincibility [snaps fingers] it's all over and you're going to be targeted just like the military is targeted.
Q: Were you generally perceived as being a journalist? Did people identify you that way?
A: Yeah, and that's also to the credit of the translators that I worked with. They were very quick to tell everyone I was a journalist. And I took pains to adopt a local style of dress and had a beard and moved as much as possible around in the same way as local people and did all the proper greetings and the right body language and everything else and made people as comfortable as possible with my presence. And in most situations I tried not to speak a lot of English. So, it's not like people weren't aware that you were probably a foreigner, but you could sort of slip through a little bit and if you didn't make this big wake around you as you moved through a place, you could do a lot more with a lot less risk.
Q: You seem to have had a remarkable level of access. One thing I was curious about was, getting back to the first part of the film, we see Mohammed largely at his work place and I only recall one brief moment where he appears to be in his house, I think he's washing or something. Was it, in general, difficult for you to get into people's homes? There's not really a lot of home life in the film.
A: Well that's true, particularly in the second chapter which deals more with the political- religious movement and uprising and is a lot less character based. In the first chapter I did film hours of material in Mohammed's house and filmed interviews with his grandmother, but it's mainly just a question that you have 30-minutes, you have to tell the story, is the stuff you have of him in the house advancing the story or not and in this case it really wasn't most of the time. And so, I have a couple of shots of him in the house washing up, changing his clothes and going to school, this kind of material, and I could have included more, but it didn't seem necessary for the story and ultimately, when you're cutting things down and really, weighing every single scene and shot, you start to cut out a lot of the shots where they're sitting around at home watching television.
Q: Again, you seem to have really gained a lot of access, even in moments where you're capturing conversations with people who are obviously anti-American. Did they just perceive you as 'Oh, you're an okay guy, we don't mean this personally.'
A: In all cases in the film where people are talking about America, American policy, they're talking about it in a sort of big, abstract way, they're not necessarily talking about individual Americans and most of the time in the Middle East, though there is a lot of anti-American, anti-West sentiment, it's all to do with the politics of US relations with the Middle East, the fact that the United States supports a lot of governments that people don't like, the Egyptian government, the Jordanian government, the Moroccan government, the Tunisian government, the Libyan government and on and on. Most people don't really like these governments. With exceptions, you know, they're police states and the United States is supporting them and people don't like the United States for that reason. They also don't like the United States because it does a lot of nasty things, like bombing cities into the ground and killing a lot of Arab civilians and that's all shown very clearly in the local media. So there's a very different perception of America in the Middle East than there is of America in the United States vis a vis the Middle East. This is just the reality. In this country we tend to shut our eyes to the situation and it's just much easier for us to imagine that we're just these benevolent people who only mean well, but on the ground things sometimes play out very differently and there's a lot of things that are perceived as hypocritical as to what the United States says about the Middle East and what the United States actually does in the Middle East, but on an individual level it's a different story. I mean, if you go and you're polite and you show respect, then you can get away with quite a bit and people will treat you well.

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