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Daily grind

Movies | An intimate view of Iraq brings hardships closer

Issue: "Red & blue all over," Sept. 23, 2006

When news from Iraq seems like a barrage of mortality reports, portraits of ordinary Iraqis can be refreshing and much more educational. In My Country, My Country, filmmaker Laura Poitras manages to be both. Her documentary follows one Iraqi man, Dr. Riyadh, in the months leading up to the groundbreaking January 2005 elections.

Riyadh, a father of six, practices medicine in Baghdad's rough Ahmadiyah neighborhood, volunteering at a clinic. He is also running for election to a local seat on the Governate Council of Baghdad.

Riyadh is a Sunni, and fiercely against the U.S. presence in Iraq. But he seems equally convinced that only elections can rectify the problem, allowing a civil outlet for Iraqis. On a medical visit to prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, he says in exasperation to inmates complaining of long detentions, "We are an occupied country with a puppet government. What do you expect?"

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The documentary is an ambitious project, wheeling between Riyadh, U.S. soldiers and diplomats, UN election workers, Australian security contractors, and Kurds. All play a role in the election countdown, but Poitras holds them together by making Riyadh the focal point.

And it is through identifying with Riyadh's normal family routines that Iraqi hardships seem much closer. In the opening scene, Riyadh and family wake up to one of Baghdad's frequent blackouts. In another, women try to swat an elusive fly in their living room as gunfire and loud explosions rattle their home. After voting, Riyadh's son holds out his purple-inked finger and jokes, "I've been trying to wash it out with kerosene. I think the resistance is after me."

In the end, only a sense of chaos is common to different Iraqis. While Riyadh is anti-United States, Kurdish militiamen are both pro-American and anti-Arab. Poitras captures some of the contrasts, and as the war wears on, such intimate views become more valuable.

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