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Houston Filmmakers and Actors: Meeting the Everymen of Iraq, Courtesy of a Returning Poet

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Meeting the Everymen of Iraq, Courtesy of a Returning Poet


Arab Film Distribution
The writer Sinan Antoon, foreground, in "About Baghdad."

January 12, 2005
MOVIE REVIEW | 'ABOUT BAGHDAD'
Meeting the Everymen of Iraq, Courtesy of a Returning Poet
By DANA STEVENS

"About Baghdad," produced and directed by an independent collective of artists and scholars, traces the journey of Sinan Antoon, a poet and journalist who left Iraq in 1991 to flee what he calls "the whole stifling atmosphere of Saddam and tyranny."

After 12 years teaching and studying Iraqi literature in the United States, Mr. Antoon returned to Baghdad in July 2003 to spend three weeks interviewing ordinary Iraqis: manual laborers, cabdrivers, writers, government workers and children. These brief, fragmentary encounters are strung together over a soundtrack of Iraqi classical songs.

It's a grim index of the situation in Iraq that July 2003 now seems a long time ago. The Baghdad of these images, just several months after the American invasion began, looks relatively intact and secure compared with the images of chaos and violence now flooding our television screens. The film's most persistent theme is the Iraqi will to self-determination: words spray-painted in Arabic on a building read: "Iraq will be ruled by Iraqis." A student expresses hope that future textbooks will read: "Baghdad did not fall. Baghdad was occupied." Again and again, those interviewed bear witness to the humiliation of living under another's rule, be it Saddam Hussein's or that of a foreign occupier.

Unlike last year's similarly structured documentary "Voices of Iraq," produced by three Americans, in which an apparent plurality of voices slowly converged into what was essentially a pro-occupation stance, "About Baghdad," which opens today at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in the East Village, manages to present a true diversity of opinion.

Although those interviewed unanimously despised the government of Mr. Hussein (the only exception is, literally, a madman who chants old Baathist slogans in the ruins of an asylum), the speakers are divided on the subject of the American presence in Iraq. They evince a complex set of attitudes toward their new American occupiers, by turns angry, resigned, hopeful and even witty. One woman watches L. Paul Bremer III, then the chief American administrator in Iraq, on television: "He is a very handsome and good-looking man. Yes, this president of ours is handsome! But we don't want him. We want an Iraqi government."

In one of the most bracing encounters of the film, a cabdriver with a chemistry degree upbraids Mr. Antoon for blaming the United States for Iraq's ills: "As Iraqis, who is responsible for us, Bush or Saddam?"

At times, these interviews could be better placed in context: only three or four of the dozens of speakers are identified by name and occupation. As a result, we learn that Iraqis hold differing opinions about the war, but not how those opinions divide along economic or social lines. The inexplicable use of split screens and multiple images (an interviewee appears in one inset box, while another box displays a Baghdad street scene) does little to bolster the power of the speakers' testimony. If anything, the technique is a distracting reminder of hyperstylized television shows like Fox's "24." Material as emotionally and intellectually challenging as this requires no gimmicks at all.

'About Baghdad'

Opens today in Manhattan.

Produced and directed by InCounter Productions (Sinan Antoon, Bassam Haddad, Dirar Hakeem, Rania Masri, Maya Mikdashi, Suzy Salamy, Nadya Sbaiti, Sherene Seikaly and Adam Shapiro); in Arabic and English, with English subtitles; directors of photography, Ms. Salamy, Mr. Haddad, Ms. Mikdashi and Mr. Shapiro; edited by Carol Mansour; music by Amer Tawfiq; released by Arab Film Distribution. At the Two Boots Pioneer Theater, 155 East Third Street, at Avenue A, East Village. Running time: 103 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Sinan Antoon.

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