Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Iraq In Fragments - James Longley Interview - Pt. 4 - Kurdish Spring

Q: The third part of the film begins with a succession of railway shots, some in fast motion, which ultimately takes you to this spectacular Kurdish countryside and, in watching the film, there's this sense of relief, escaping the city to this beautiful place. Was this something you personally felt?

A: Yes! And not only me. If you're in Baghdad and you want to go on vacation, the only place to do it inside Iraq is to drive up to the North and hang out in the mountains, which a lot of people do on the weekends. The security situation is totally different, the local Kurdish security is controlling everything and there are very, very few bombings. You don't have the United States military present in this kind of overt way that you have in the Central and Southern parts of the country. So the whole atmosphere is different. I lived in this really inexpensive hotel with no security for nine months in the North from September 2004 to April 2005 and never had a single worry that,AeP the keys to the room would open practically every door in the place... laughs. You know it was very low security and I had my computer, two terabytes of disc-space and all of the cameras and everything lying around and nothing was ever taken out of my room. I never had any problems even with this kind of basic personal possession type of security. It was very, very easy and a totally different atmosphere than what there was in Baghdad at that time.

Q: The Kurds themselves come across as the nicest, most open people in the film.
A: Well, you know, the Kurds are very nice and the rest of Iraqis are also very nice and it's probably my fault that you don't see as much of that sort of ordinary people, family life type situation in my film. If I have something that I regret more than anything about this movie, it's that the material which I wound up including in the film doesn't give the full picture of Iraqi, Arab hospitality in the same way it does with the Kurds. The fact is that, of course, there was a completely different atmosphere in the Central and Southern parts of the country toward foreigners, toward Americans, but that didn't prevent people, even those who opposed the US military occupation, from being very hospitable and very kind. If the section that was cut from the film, which features a Sunni farming family, South of Baghdad in Mahmudiya, had been included, you'd probably come away with a different perception of what the ordinary Arab civilian population in Central Iraq is like, because it's this very loving, beautiful family and this doesn't come across in the film. That's perhaps,AeP it's one of those compromises with practicality that you make as a filmmaker that you don't have time to include all of that material, but the fact that there is this perception of a different atmosphere in the Kurdish North than there is in the rest of the film is actually accurate, because there is a very different atmosphere. It's not that the people are any nicer or any worse, it's just that the Kurds are not under occupation, effectively. They are under occupation, but it's an invisible occupation. There are Americans there, but they're not in the streets in their Humvees, they're not patrolling the skies with their helicopters, you don't see them. They're there, but they have this security agreement with the local governments, so they're perceived in a completely different way and people don't have this interaction with them the way they do in the rest of the country. So, there's a different,AeP you could say that life continued pretty much uninterrupted through the war period of 2003, but there were these governments, based on the parties the PUK and the PDK, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Democratic Party, which are the two ruling Kurdish parties in the North. They had a civil war in the beginning of the 1990's, which no one really remembers. They had a civil war and most of the buildings between Arbil and Diana and these other places, Rawanduz and so forth, bear the scars of that civil war. The hotel where I lived had bullet holes and rocket impact markings on the walls. Anyway, those two parties reconciled and between them they split the parliament 50-50 and now they're ruling the North and they have these security agreements with the United States that prevents the United States from acting unilaterally in the North. So you don't have the US going on raids and arresting people in the same way that they do in the rest of the country. And because these governments have been running things since the mid-90's, though it was very difficult under the sanctions period for the Kurds as well as the rest of the country, they've had this uninterrupted rulership that's indigenous. So there's this feeling of stability, which there isn't in the rest of the country, combined with the absence of overt occupation and their acceptance of the occupying power, because it works to their own political advantage to have the Americans there.
Q: One thing that was kind of interesting was a classroom scene of kids getting an English lesson. As a matter of fact, I think it's the only time you hear English in the film. Was that unusual in Iraq? Was that something particular to the North?
A: No. A lot of Iraqis take English in school, it's completely normal, just as normal in Basra as it is in the North, but the Kurdish schools are taught in Kurdish and people mostly study Arabic because of religion class and they have to be able to read the Koran in the original Arabic. So, that's the main reason people study Arabic at all these days and there's a rebellion against speaking and studying Arabic on the part of many university students and people of that age, whereas the older generation of Kurds and Assyrians and people living in that area all understand Arabic, because of their history with Baghdad and because everyone was in the military or whatever. My translator in the North was an Assyrian guy, which is a Christian group in Iraq, who speaks English, that he taught himself, spoke Arabic, because he was in the Military for twelve years and fought in the Iran/Iraq war and the Gulf War and everything else and spoke his native Assyrian and also spoke Kurdish and a smattering of Turkish, because of the Turkmen population. So, people are largely multilingual in Iraq and especially in the Northern part, but the younger generation now is rebelling against the study of Arabic for political reasons. They want to be independent, they don't want to have anything to do with Baghdad rule, so if given the choice between studying Arabic and studying English, they're more likely to go for English, because it's this kind of pro-Western, pro-American political feeling which is very much present.
Q: At the end of the film the father of one of the boys says, "You cannot escape America's reach," then he tells a story about two wrestlers. Someone is observing two wrestlers and asks them whose side is God on and they respond, "God is on the always on the side of the winner. Whoever wins god is on his side." That's an interesting and somewhat open sentiment to close the film with and you could interpret it in many ways, depending on who you see as the wrestling parties, it could either be the Americans vs. the Iraqis or the Kurds vs. the Iraqis,AeP
A: But the basic idea is that whoever wins, God is on his side and I included that at the end of the film as a closing sentiment, because I think it reflects the state of international politics today, which is not ruled by international law, it's ruled by winner take all and the-ends-justify-the-means kinds of politics. So, I think if you were to go back and Mahmoud, the old guy, and ask the same question, he would probably say, "Oh well, God is always on the side of the person who is in the right, who is doing the right thing." You know, he's very pious, but for whatever reason it sort of slipped out at that time in this far more realistic way which is, if you can take it, if you can get it, if you can win, then you're in the right and when he was talking about America controlling everything in Iraq he's talking specifically about America's ability to decide the fate of Kurdistan. That is to say America will decide whether the Kurds will have their own independent state or be under Baghdad rule. It's in America's power to decide this issue and he's not wrong about that, but at the same time it's an interesting sentiment in a broader sense, 'One cannot escape America's reach.' I think that's the way the entire world feels right now, that if the United States wants to do something, if they want to change the government of Venezuela well, by god, they're going to step in and do it and no one can really stop that. And certainly in this period of 2003, before the souring of the occupation, there was definitely this sentiment of Pax Americana, of America being the undisputed ruler of the world that can simply go and do whatever they like. So the ending of the film is reflective of that reality.
Q: Then the last image is of his son,AeP
A: ,AePand he's walking into the night,AeP
Q: ,AePwith his bicycle and he says to his friends "I'm going. God be with you." It's a very moving ending and it's almost as if you yourself were saying, "I am leaving you now. Good luck."
A: Right. Yeah, I mean in a way that's true. You know, what can you do? It's this feeling of well, whatever happens, happens and that is the way I felt when I left the country. That my work there was done, there was nothing more I could do, there was nothing I could do to affect the situation. The country is in this very tenuous position, no matter which way you look at it. If the Americans stay, if the Americans go, either way there's a huge potential in Iraq for civil war, for the breakup of the society. It has been for years now always on the brink of disaster and that disaster has crept into the lives of many people, hundreds of thousands of people, and so it's a country which has been destroyed by the political and power aspirations of its own leadership and that of other countries. So the overriding sentiment of my film, if it has one, is to look at the country from the point of view of ordinary people to remind you that these are the people you should be caring about, you should be thinking about. Who cares about these governments, Saddam Hussein or what have you, these people who are always seeking power, seeking control, whether it's the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein or whether it's the aspirations of the Bush administration in the region. These aren't the people that you should really be worried about. You should be worried about how policies are going to play out on the ground and effect the lives of ordinary people, because they they're no different from you in most respects.

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