Documentary Film Review: American Voices
and Caught in the Crossfire: The Untold Story in Falluja.
Americans are the most polled people in the world, but not the most shafted. The most shafted surely include the Iraqi people.
In January 2003, Mark Manning, ex-deep sea diver turned filmmaker, began interviewing Americans in a heartfelt attempt to understand the move toward war. Almost two years later, his interviews led to Iraq. The result is two documentaries, American Voices and Caught in the Crossfire: The Untold Story in Falluja.
Manning narrates both films. In American Voices he began by asking a few basic questions of people from all walks of life, in all parts of the United States. On a city street, a man with a slightly boiled complexion tells us why we should attack Iraq: "When I say necessary, I mean that we are doing it in self defense. That in my book is necessary." This is echoed later in the film by a Chinese American woman, "They're going to come over here. They're going to do something. They're going to kill us."
Of course, views usually differ. On a wintry ranch, an old-timer in a cowboy hat says, "The last thing to do is go to war as far as I'm concerned." A nattily-dressed woman in the city says, "It's heart wrenching to think what the children must be experiencing, and that's sort of my focus because they didn't ask to be in this situation."
The documentary is composed of short answers interspersed with extended interviews and commentary by the filmmaker, plus picturesque shots of the countryside. In one scene, the camera moves slowly across a bridge. We see the railing, a stretch of still water, and a few lights on the far shore backed by snow-covered mountains. Manning says in a voiceover, I have found a common thread with every American citizen that I've talked to. Everywhere I have been and with every type of person one answer has always been the same, and that was to the question, Do you know what your country's foreign policy is in the Middle East?
When the film cuts to that one answer, we're out of the cold landscape and back in a city. The colors are warm. One person after another says: "I don't really know like very specific things. I'll be honest." "I can't speak in a very educated manner about that." "No, I'm not sure what the foreign policy is in the Middle East." "I'm not really sure exactly what the policy is. No." "No." "Seems like the foreign countries are more aware of it than we are."
The sequence ends with a young woman in front of a store, who says, "There's a huge wall of ignorance in this country." Then the camera is back in the cold landscape. Manning continues his voice over while we see a snowy no-man's land in slow motion. The desolate landscape is a perfect visual comment on our collective ignorance.
"I was struck by the commonality of the answers to that question," Manning says, "What struck me more though was that everyone I talked to thought that we as Americans should know our foreign policy, that we even had a duty to know our foreign policy, and they all gave profound and beautiful reasons as to why we should know."
Manning's sampling is not scientific, but it seems right, showing us an uninformed and uninvolved citizenry that nonetheless believes it is responsible for the actions of its government.
This lack of knowledge about U.S. foreign policy is not new. Yet it compliments the Bush administration's disregard of policy analysis in favor of political ends, as noted by ex- insiders John DiIulio and Paul O'Neill. Few people seem to have any specific facts to support their opinions and beliefs for or against the Iraq war.
Manning asks a woman, "Do you think the government is now like a parent?"
"Yes," she says, "They're like the mommas and the daddies and we're like the little children. They're doing things while we're in the bed sleeping, they're doing things that we don't know anything about."
From another angle, the Afro- and Native Americans in the film are more sensitive to the "clash of cultures" brought on by the Iraq war. This comes from experience, not ideology. One Indian man says, "When you go destroy other people and destroy their culture, then you know better then what you done to the American Indians."
On May 24, 2004, President Bush told the nation, "In the city of Fallujah, there's been considerable violence by Saddam loyalists and foreign fighters, including the murder of four American contractors. American soldiers and Marines could have used overwhelming force. Our commanders, however...determined that massive strikes against the enemy would alienate the local population, and increase support for the insurgency. So we have pursued a different approach."
This noble show of restraint ended about six months later in favor of the city's destruction. In his second documentary, Caught in the Crossfire: The Untold Story in Falluja, Mark Manning, in collaboration with Iraqi filmmakers, shows the results of overwhelming force. Their un-embedded effort is important. Even for informed Americans, the plight of the civilians of Fallujah probably remains an unseen story. U.S. media attention was minimal, not to mention government aid to the 250,000 residents forced to evacuate or stay in peril.
Manning entered Fallujah with an Iraqi woman he'd met in Jordan. They were embedded with the returning refugees. The documentary shows the long lines to enter the city. He narrates, "Their nightmare far from over, the civilians now returned to their once beautiful city.... Their first experience are the checkpoints.... There are no human rights in a checkpoint. Deadly force is authorized and used. All people are treated like prisoners. The men are separated, and all people, men, women and children are searched at gun point."
Alienating the local population is no longer a worry. These Iraqis are fingerprinted, retina scanned, and given a bar code. And we see the city that they come home to. A majority of the houses and businesses are destroyed or damaged.
At the end of the film, a woman says in translation, "How does the government accept this? They show on TV the freedom fighters and they say they are the terrorists. But if they are calling people here terrorists then why are they not calling Americans terrorists also? They would never accept this in their lives."
Caught in the Crossfire is currently available as an 18 minute DVD from ConceptionMedia. Part of the proceeds from its sale go to Iraqi civilians in need. The director is editing a longer version of the documentary.
Mike Reizman is a writer, photographer, and web-based bookseller.
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