Digital photography has given rise to more and more instant documentaries, and there is no better current example than Voices of Iraq, put together by former U.S. Marine and Gulf War veteran Archie Drury and two NYU educated filmmakers Eric Manes and Martin Kunert, who obtained over 450 hours of home video footage by distributing 150 digital video cameras to Iraqis and instructed them to make their own movies and hand them off to friends and relatives to do likewise. The result: over 2,000 individuals contributed images from all corners of Iraq that would have been impossible to obtain otherwise. Unquestionably the format puts faces on the people living through the conflict. In that sense the expectedly uneven collage demands attention for its historical and cultural value.
Historians will demand access to the raw 450 hours, however, since questions naturally arise about the political agenda of the editors. In contrast with most documentary material currently arising from Iraq, this is a film that FOX News would be overjoyed to show since its overall message communicates extreme hatred of Saddam Hussein and great appreciation for the U.S. efforts to free and democratize Iraq. One sequence would even bring Bill O'Reilly to tears, as a young Iraqi boy happily proclaims "An American" when asked what he wants to be when he grows up.
Very few negative views about the U.S. are included, outside a handful of widows/mothers who mourn relatives killed during Baghdad bombing raids. Other negative views include an Internet video produced by insurgents that serves to rally support against the Americans, and U.S. newspaper headlines sporting disaster, carnage, and Iraqi non-cooperation. But these headlines fade into a surreal background when immediately followed by optimistic home footage of grateful Iraqis thankful for U.S. intervention. Undoubtedly political messages are lost in translation—one example being a young boy hamming for the camera who gives conflicting reviews: "America: good—Saddam: good."
The film's most chilling moments are brief black and white clips that weren't part of the digital give-away, but home style video shot during earlier times when Saddam Hussein engaged in mass poisoning of Kurds, torture, and executions. With beheadings becoming more and more common from that region, its inclusion here won't be as shocking for viewers as will a tongue slicing and a hand severing. Although there have been no weapons of mass destruction uncovered, the widespread negative opinions about Saddam and the brutal examples of his regime would go a long way to ensure fence sitting Americans that the U.S. was justified.
Theoretically we all realize that there are real people behind the news headlines, but Voices of Iraq reaffirms this basic truism. Even in the middle of war zones, life must go on—people continue to carry out their daily routines, young people (like the heavy metal band Euphrates) pursue careers, and children continue to dream of their futures. This is no Pollyanna type view of Iraq's current situation, but it's decidedly a positive and upbeat view—and that's very reassuring and human. Even the recent prison abuse is given a positive spin—the Iraqis shown praise the U.S. for being the first major power to apologize over the abuses and remark that U.S. tortures (like playing with a prisoner's penis) was more pleasurable than Saddam's brand of torture.
Michael Moore haters will absolutely love this since the home videos don't dwell on the negative aspects of the U.S. operations. Often disjointed with shaky hand held camerawork, this is no great work of art, but the resulting footage remains fascinating and refreshing in light of the usual media coverage that we are fed through our televisions. It's a human story; thus, a film about hopes and dreams. It's like the story about the perpetually optimistic child who continued to look through a huge pile of horse manure because he was convinced that there had to be a pony in there somewhere.