At this past Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc, we watched Voices of Iraq, which is comprised mostly of footage shot by Iraqis using the 150 digital cameras provided to them by the producers of the film, and which describes itself as, “Filmed and directed by the people of Iraq”. This description was one of the reasons that I chose to screen the film, because it seemed to imply that the film was providing a more truthful and accurate account of the situation in Iraq simply because the footage was actually made by Iraqis, ignoring the enormous role that the producers had in shaping the film, both through the process of editing 500 hours of raw footage into 80 minutes of finished film, and also through the choices of which people were to be given the cameras. Though I expected to see evidence of this editorial influence, I was startled to see just how much editorial intervention there really is in the film. Not only are there the unavoidable and mostly invisible choices of what footage to include and exclude, but there are also frequent and highly visible elements that are very clearly not shot and directed by the people of Iraq.
There are the written titles for the sections of the film , for example, which are usually just dates, relatively innocuous, but that sometimes include strangely selective references to the political situation in Iraq. One such title informs the audience that the month in question saw the return of Iraqi sovereignty, though the highly ambiguous and contested nature of this sovereignty is never mentioned. Another claims that there had been a rise in bombings and beheadings in that month, attributing these things exclusively to Al Queda, ignoring the considerable role that local Iraqi militia groups were having in the escalation of violence in Iraqi cities. These sorts of titles, though not necessarily false, are certainly partial, and they are almost certainly not the kinds of titles that everyday Iraqis would use to describe the events that were taking place at that time.
There are also several sections of film that, while perhaps technically filmed by Iraqis, are certainly not filmed and directed by the common Iraqi people to whom the film claims to be permitting freedom of expression after more than two decades of silence. There are several lengthy clips from terrorist propaganda videos, for example, and there are also several clips of the torture and killings conducted under Saddam’s regime. There are no similar clips from Iraqi cameras that have captured abuses by the occupying American and British forces, though these videos are freely available all over the internet, so the editorial choice to insert certain kinds of found footage and not others becomes an increasingly unavoidable question as the film progresses.
Perhaps the oddest editorial intervention, however, is the inclusion of western newspaper headlines. These headlines almost exclusively imply positions that are opposed to the American intervention in Iraq, and they are consistently followed by footage that contests their claims. Not only are these interventions highly biased, never including examples of conservative headlines being similarly contested, and not only are they manipulative, making the footage take a position on a Western media debate about which the Iraqi filmmakers themselves would not even be aware, but they are also entirely opposed to the film’s self-description. Western newspaper headlines are in no way written and directed by the people of Iraq. Nor are they related to the ability of the Iraqi people to express themselves freely for the first time in decades. They are imposed entirely by a Western editorial perspective.
These kinds of interventions are a problem because documentary film already creates an illusory sense of verisimilitude, of reality, of accuracy, of truthfulness, and Voices of Iraq, far from signaling this problem as good documentaries should, presents itself as being even more reliable and truthful than other documentaries because it is filmed by everyday Iraqi people, and yet its editorial influences constantly undermine the Iraqi voices that the film claims to represent. The film is a problem, not because it is biased, as all documentaries are, but because it makes special claim to being less biased, to being more accurately reflective of the situation in Iraq, to being a way for Iraqis to express themselves freely. It is a problem because it attempts to conceal rather than to confront the impossibility of its own claims to facticity and truth.
This does not mean, however, that Voices of Iraq is entirely without merit, because it does include some lovely moments of intimacy with the Iraqi people. There is an older man who describes how he coped with the bombing of his city by waiting up, night after night, playing the piano. There is a young man who performs a solo dance in a small courtyard. There is the mother who is interviewed by her daughter about the torture that she has endured. These kinds of moments are where the film seems, even if only momentarily, to exceed its own intentions. Such scenes may not be more true than the rest of the film, but they are more surprising, more intimate, more human, and they are where the film finds its worth.