Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Iraq In Fragments - James Longley Interview - Pt. 3 - Sadr's South

Q: In the second section of the film there's an interesting tension where you have the Sadrists and the militias and they're doing the alcohol raids and so-forth and you have this shot, after one of the raids, where this detained man who's blindfolded says, "We were saved from one oppression and you have brought another?" So you have this sense of these men, particularly the cleric you are following, as full of passion. They're pushing for having a real political process and having actual elections and you see they're very idealistic and they have a sense of integrity, but you also get the feeling that if they really ran the country the way they wanted it would very much be like Iran, a very repressive society.

A: Right, and this is the reality which is now taking shape in Iraq. It's not merely the Sadr movement, which has this kind of conservative religious foundation, it's also the Dawa party, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI] and the Sistani people, who also have exactly the same religious foundation in conservative Shiite Islam. So, right now, Iraq has a constitution which states that nothing in Iraqi law should run counter to Sharia law, Islamic law, so the United States has wittingly or unwittingly put into power people in Iraq who are very sympathetic with the kind of Iranian style conservative Islam that we rail against in this country. So, right now, the United States is arming, training and funding a government which is very much allied with Iran and you know it's ironic. The prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari was previously in exile in Iran and he has very strong ties there.

Q: But still there is this kind of double-edged quality that... for instance you just had the elections in the Occupied Territories where Hamas had this big victory.
A: Right.
Q: And one of the things you typically hear is that one of the reasons these guys win is,AeP there was this piece by Ari Shavit in the February 6, New Yorker where he interviewed Shalom Harari, a former Israeli Military Intelligence officer who has been following Hamas for almost a quarter century and he said, "In Jordan, too, wherever there are free elections--trade unions, student unions, professional guilds--the Islamists have the upper hand. If the Hashemite kings had not played all kinds of tricks, the Islamists would have had a large representation in parliament as well. And when Egypt held its American"nspired parliamentary elections recently, the number of seats won by the Muslim Brotherhood rose fivefold. Throughout the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood is the main power with grassroots support. The Islamists are less corrupt. They are the ones with integrity and compassion. They are of the people and they speak for the people. Today in the Arab world, the choice is clear between democratically elected Islamists and Western-leaning dictators." So, you seem to have this double-edged sword in that they might ultimately be the more repressive guys, but they're also perceived as being more ethical.
A: Right, well, I think that the more secular,AeP this trend in the Middle East has a long and complicated history. And I think it would pay to go back to the Cold War and, in the case of Palestinian"sraeli situation, it would pay probably to go back to the early 1980's and remember that the United States, for example, in Afghanistan was supporting the Islamists over the Communists for its own political purposes and did, I think, exactly the same thing in Iran when the Shah was overthrown. The Ayatollah Khomeini was flown in from Paris with the acquiescence of the United States, because there was a left-leaning movement in Iran at that time that was about to take over. And in the case of Iraq you have this Islamist government, which is now being supported by United States, coming to power. There were other forces in the society, but they were also supported by the United States,AeP A secular movement like the Baath party, but they were also very anti-Communist and the Communist party was crushed by them. And the Israelis, of course, supported Hamas in its inception as a counterweight to the secular Fatah movement of Yassir Arafat. And these things have a tendency to backfire. You know, there's been a lot of interference by the West and by various forces within the Middle East to play different groups off of each other and sometimes this simply results in the rise to power of groups which had originally been used as pawns. I think, also, groups like Fatah have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot by being corrupt and ineffectual. And the United States is partly to blame in that, because you have a leader like Mahmoud Abbas, but you don't allow him to actually do anything or get anything done and Sharon, I think, met with him only one time and nothing was accomplished at that meeting. So if you have these more secular leaning Westernized leaders and you don't allow them to do anything, of course they're going to lose at the polls next time there's an election. So, I think that the victory of Hamas is definitely also a victory for the Israeli right-wing, because it means that they'll be able to continue their policy of unilateral action toward the Palestinians, which means the unilateral expansion of settlements, the unilateral construction of the wall, which is effectively annexing large sections of West Bank and dividing the West Bank into sections. And this is all being done unilaterally without negotiations with the Palestinians and having Hamas in power just means they'll be able to continue moving in this direction. I don't think that it will necessarily have a good end result, but this is the effect.
Q: You said in your notes that you never really understood why the Sadr organization trusted you as much as they did.
A: Well, yeah, I mean it was strange. It was strange that they let me hang out and film them for so long. I could see that some of them thought I must be a spy and I kept on thinking to myself how long is this going to last where I have this access and they don't kick me out and I think in the end it was just the result of the fact that they had taken me in originally and they didn't want to go back on their word. They didn't want to rescind the hospitality they had been showing me without any kind of good reason. As long as I followed the rules and I was polite and they had no reason to think that, no concrete reason to think that I was spying for some other government or power, then they couldn't just come to me in this rude way and say 'You have to get out, you're no longer welcome here.' They didn't want to do that,AeP laughs.
Q: Do you think there was an angle where they might have been thinking, "Well, you know, we're honest men and he might be helpful to get our message across and get it out."
A: You know, I think, more than that,AeP the way I would explain it to them wasn't that my film was going to help them right now in this movement that they have. My pitch to them about filming them was basically, 'Look, there's history to think about. You have this movement. You think it's important. How is it going to be remembered? How is it going to be recorded? This is my job. I'm a documentary filmmaker and I'm writing the first draft of history right here, because this film, if it is successful, if it comes out, is going to be available fifty years from now. People will be able to refer back to it and say, 'Well, there was this movement and they wanted these things.'" So, in a way, that appealed to the more educated and prescient of the group and also there's a strong tendency towards narcissism in a lot of these movements. They like to be filmed, they film themselves all the time.
Q: The shots of the battle in Kufa appear to be from a different camera.
A: Right. There's a 1-minute scene in the film where you see this little bit grainier, little bit rougher footage, which is actually shot by one of the people in the demonstration, because I was at that time driving from Baghdad to Kufa and I didn't arrive until 40-minutes after that firefight had started. So what you have in that scene is a situation where you're seeing visuals shot by one of the people who was in the demonstration and filmed it and filmed people coming back with weapons and starting to fight the Spanish troops, but you're hearing the audio that I recorded of the same skirmish, because at that time you couldn't get close to the base from the main road where I had come in on the taxi. So, it's my audio with someone else's video, but it's completely anonymous. They released it on a video CD and started selling it in the marketplace. It's 320x240, whatever,AeP extremely compressed video CD material and the fact that it blew up to 35mm as well as it did is kind of astounding.
Q: Did you ever take any physical precautions while there? Did you ever wear body armor?
A: No. I never wore anything like that because whenever you do that people think you're a soldier and if you embed with the United States military it's probably a good idea, because if you're with them they already think you're a soldier, but if you're out on the street you don't want people to think you're military, you don't want people to think you're a part of some organization larger than yourself and the minute you have anything that looks like it might be a uniform of some kind, whether it's a bullet proof vest or press vest or insignia of some kind, then immediately people are going to be asking, "Where are you from, what are you doing, what are you part of?" Whereas if you're just a guy with a camera you can always say, 'I'm here making a documentary' and that's it. It's a psychological thing as much as anything. If you're wearing a bullet-proof vest you're sort of inviting people to shoot at you.
Q: Laughs.
A: You know what I mean? You're saying to them, "I'm a person who is afraid of getting shot. I'm afraid of getting shot, because maybe I'm here doing something not quite right." If you approach everything in this kind of totally open way people are less suspicious of you.
Q: Well, despite your good relations with the Sadr organization, you were actually dragged into a court at one point.
A: Yeah, they were kind of disorganized and very nervous all the time, especially after large numbers of them started to get killed by the Americans. This is in the run-up to the siege of Najaf, the siege of the shrine, where they had hundreds of fighters inside the Imam Ali shrine and most of the downtown of the city was destroyed, entire hotel buildings were bombed to the ground by F-16's. And these huge planes, that they had first used in Vietnam, I forget what they're called, the Ghosts or something [Spectre or Spooky], but there were these B-52 sized planes with these large barreled guns coming off the side and whatnot and they started flying these things around Falluja, I think it was the first place they used them, and then they used them again around in Najaf. Just this complete devastating firepower, Apache helicopters and tanks on the periphery of the city, artillery and F-16 bombing going on. I mean, it was a,AeP if you look at photographs of Najaf after the siege, which took place in November, the main street leading up to the shrine where you see the gold dome at the end, that whole street was just knee-high in rubble after the fighting. It was completely filled with the remains of destroyed buildings and it's unfortunate, for the purposes of the film, that I wasn't able to film during that siege and afterwards, because it would have been a very interesting way of concluding the chapter, but I was in the North. In September I had moved up to the North, and I just decided that it was too difficult, in terms of security, although friends of mine were inside the shrine during the siege. I didn't take that risk.
Q: To get back to your 'court appointment'. How did you talk them into letting you go?
A: Well, they basically realized that I was who I said I was and I was doing what I said I was doing. It wasn't a big deal, but it could have been. You never know. These situations, if they get out of hand, they can become very dangerous and especially when people are getting killed and tempers are very high and if you overreact and start arguing, it can become a dangerous situation. Luckily, they just sort of sent me away and said 'you're not welcome' and at that time I basically just tried to keep my cool and say 'Look, we have permission, stamped and signed by your people. There's nothing in these permissions that says we can't go to the cemetery and film and, besides, we weren't really filming, we were just going to see what happened, because we want to know and eventually they just sort of sent us away, but it was just one of those things. Definitely things got worse and worse, in terms of people's tempers and moods and that's what really makes the situation dangerous.

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