Like a recurring nightmare that haunts us in ever-changing forms, the war in Iraq has called forth a compelling series of documentaries — "Gunner Palace," "Occupation: Dreamland," the current "Iraq for Sale," the Sundance-winning but still unreleased "Iraq in Fragments," among many others — that tell us what is going on in that agonized country with more depth and immediacy than any other medium has managed.
What continues to be remarkable is not only that documentaries keep coming out but that each of them manages to be different than those that came before, illuminating aspects of that benighted situation that haven't previously come to light. The newest, Laura Poitras' "My Country, My Country" and Patricia Foulkrod's "The Ground Truth," are two of the best.
These films echo the previous Iraq work in that each was put together by a passionate director whose single-minded devotion to the subject was what got the film made. Also, each of these films exemplifies one of the two main categories of Iraq docs: Poitras' film shows what the war has been like for the Iraqis, while Foulkrod concentrates with equal heartbreak on the personal traumas U.S. soldiers have to deal with when they return home.
Poitras says "My Country, My Country" was "motivated by a sense of despair." Determined to see the war's "contradictions from the perspective of the people living them," she worked alone in Iraq for more than eight months, getting close enough to the situation to show what being a civilian in a war zone really means.
Eight months with any family will lead to intimacy, but Poitras was especially fortunate in the Iraqi she connected with, a man who exemplifies many of the contradictions of his country. And her time frame, the months leading to Iraq's January 2005 elections, was also fortuitous.
Dr. Riyadh, married with six children, is a committed physician who runs a clinic in a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad. He is a deeply religious man who feels that Islam offers people more justice than any secular system. Yet he believes strongly in democracy and is one of the Iraqi Islamic Party's candidates for Baghdad's City Council.
What's most striking about what we hear from the sophisticated, educated Dr. Riyadh, just the kind of man who should be at least neutral about the U.S., is how angry and frustrated he is about the American occupation. Talking to a friend on the phone about a recent shooting in his neighborhood, he comments witheringly about these "fruits of democracy." And talking to angry prisoners at Abu Ghraib, he snaps in irritation, "We are an occupied country with a puppet government, what do you expect?"
Because she worked alone, Poitras was also able to gain a kind of backstage access to the upcoming elections, which the Americans seem to view at least in part as a show that needs good reviews. We see a concerned military briefer worrying about the reactions of what he calls "Joe Reasonable Iraqi," and we witness the workings of a plainclothes Australian security film, brought in because it simply wouldn't look good to have too many American uniforms around election sites.
What "My Country, My Country" does best is show us that while both the Americans and the Iraqis care about the country's future, their cultural backgrounds and world views inevitably make them seem alien to each other. We see that an occupation is inevitably oppressive, and though they are trying to help, U.S. soldiers by the very nature of their presence come off as intrusive and arrogant.
Some of this same feeling comes through from the U.S. soldiers' point of view in "The Ground Truth." As one returning veteran tells filmmaker Foulkrod, "occupation is a situation of dominance, it's the day-to-day reality of behaving abusively. Killing is just the icing on the cake."
But what is especially interesting about "The Ground Truth" is that it takes some pains to avoid as much as possible talk about whether we should have troops on the ground. This thoughtful, sensitive film, perhaps the most emotionally wrenching of all the Iraq documentaries, could have been made after any war.
Using extensive interviews with returning Iraq and some Vietnam veterans, "The Ground Truth" investigates an unspoken reality that society has never been comfortable acknowledging: What the military does, plain and simple, is teach people to kill.
How that's done, and what happens to those trained killers when they come home and face the truth of the dictum "If you're a good soldier you'll be a bad civilian" is what this film is about.
It all starts with the recruiting process, with emphasis placed on benefits such as college tuition, seeing the world and serving your country. "The killing, the bloody business of the military," says returning soldier Aidan Delgado, "they downplay that."
Next comes basic training and its effectiveness in breaking recruits down, a technique, says Lt. Col. David Grossman, that attempts to make killing a conditioned reflex because experience from World War II demonstrated that "humans are reluctant to kill their own kind."
Once in a combat zone where it is difficult to tell friend from foe, the soldiers in "Ground Truth" find that their training has led them to actions they have difficulty living with and even have a hard time talking about on camera.
One man describes killing a woman who was reaching for a white flag; another explains the technique of blanketing an area with gunfire, killing the innocent along with the guilty, while Marine Staff Sgt. Jimmy J. Massey talks of official indifference to widespread killing of civilians. "This isn't," the nine-year veteran says, "the Marine Corps I signed up for."
Even if they leave the service physically unharmed, these men find that, as Marine Cpt. Sean Huze says, "who we are when we return is not who we were when we left. We all become casualties of war." Friends and family are often ill-equipped to deal with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and, several veterans report, the Department of Defense is often reluctant to accept responsibility.
Because, like "My Country's" Poitras, director Foulkrod made sure to spend considerable time with her subjects, the resulting candor leads to stories and situations that will surely cause tears. By the time "The Ground Truth" is over, no one will doubt the quotation from psychologist James Hillman that starts the film: "The return from the killing field is more than a debriefing. It is a slow ascent from hell."