Focus under Fire: Activist Filmmakers Report from Iraq
By Gar Smith / The-Edge
June 27, 2004
Inside a darkened room at the San Francisco's Film Arts Institute, a video slide-show stored on a laptop flashs chaotic images on a large screen as Bay Area filmmaker David Martinez recounts the recent month he spent in Iraq with CorpWatch Director Pratap Chatterjee. In the course of their stay, Martinez became part of a mercy team ferrying medical supplies to civilians trapped in the seige of Fallujah. Later, Martinez found himself working inside an ambulance with British activist Jo Wilding, picking up bodies of insurgents and innocent Iraqis killed by US snipers.
|Bay Area activists Pratap Chatterjee and David Martinez came across this young Iraqi girl cradling an AK-47 during their filmmaking trip to Iraq. Some of the footage Martinez shot appears in Fahrenheit 911. Martinez is looking for additional funding to finish his own documentary about life inside besieged Fallujah. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Credit: Photo by Donna Hoffman. |
Tugging at the Marlins baseball cap atop his bearded face, Martinez explains that he frequently was unable to film in certain areas out of concern that his camera might be mistaken for a weapon. US forces earlier had killed a respected Palestinian cameraman, claiming that they thought his video camera was a shoulder-mounted weapon.
Wilding is a trim, energetic woman whose hands are in constant motion as she shifts boxer-like from one foot to another. Like Martinez, Wilding wears a baseball cap that shadows her eyes but can't contain a ponytail that sprouts from the back.
Wilding recalls the harrowing evening when she and Martinez made a failed attempt to rescue a woman who was about to give birth alone in a house surrounded by US snipers. Their ambulance -- with siren wailing and lights flashing -- came under US fire. "We could see the red tracers coming right for us," Wilding recounted. Bullets ripped through the windshield and punched holes in the side of the vehicle. Wilding used a megaphone to shout that they were an international medical team. When the firing continued, their driver fled. Sniper's bullets took out the ambulance's two front tires.
"By the time we reached the field hospital, the tire rims were destroyed," Wilding told the audience. "The hospital people told us, 'Don't feel bad about the ambulance. We have already had to rebuild it four times because of gunfire.'"
Pratap Chatterjee tells The-Edge that he took the footage to the United Nations in an attempt to pressure the US to stop targeting ambulances. The UN officials Chatterjee spoke with were unimpressed. "They told me that UN ambulances get shot at all the time by Israeli troops in Palestine. They said it was nothing new. But they did offer to investigate." There's something else US Marines and Israeli Defense Force snipers have in common, Chatterjee added: "You can see from the bullet holes: They always aim for the driver."
The-Edge asked if Chatterjee had managed to show any of the footage to Michael Moore. "We did," he replies. "We got it in just under the wire. It will be in Fahrenheit 911."
Live from Baghdad with David Chicago
When Martinez' film is released, it will be narrated by a local kid named Daod -- or, as he prefers to introduce himself when he's on camera: "This is David Chicago in Bagdad. Hi! Howya doon?" Daod's parents couldn't take care of him so he started hanging out in the hotel where he offered his services as a translator. The journalists adopted him. He now sleeps in the hotel.
Baghdad used to be alive until early in the mornings with people sitting at outdoor cafes, sipping tea, smoking and chatting. Now, Martinez laments, "everyone is off the streets by 8." The face America presents in Iraq is "your worst nightmare," Martinez adds. While a growing number of soldiers have started questioning a war that makes no sense from their perspective, many other soldiers remain "arrogant, brutal, uneducated." As one grinning soldier told Jo and David: "I love Fallujah. I killed a bunch of motherfuckers there."
In one videoclip, a group of US battle tanks maneuvers down a city street. The cannon on the tanks are adorned with hand-painted slogans. One bears the phrase: "Analyze This." Given the phallic nature of the cannon, that's not hard to do.
Martinez agrees that Iraqi society functioned better under Saddam when everyone had jobs, the healthcare system was the best in the Middle East and education was free through the university level. But Saddam was a dictator and a thug. "People want it to be simple. People want The Lord of the Rings. But it's not good versus bad."
Many NGOs who travel to Iraq get their information from English-speaking Iraqis in Baghdad. There's a reason these people speak English and there's a reason they are accessible, Martinez cautions. They don't necessarily represent "the Iraqi street." Even if they are opposed to the Occupation that may not mean they share the same vision of what a "free Iraq" might resemble. Martinez has spent months traveling around Iraq unescorted, speaking freely with many Iraqis, "and still I don't understand the country." Everytime he returns: "I find it's different. I never know what to expect."
A Few Tips for Fellow Filmmakers
Martinez's tips to journalists: "Don't wear khaki. Grow a beard. No crew cuts. Oakly sunglasses and a baseball cap equals 'mercenary.' Don't be seen with occupation troops. Always drive at least 100 meters behind any US vehicles."
Other tips: Don't accept rides from soldiers who want to drop you off in front of your hotel in a Humvee. And don't drive around in a white SUV. "You may as well advertise: 'Kidnap me!'" Since foreign mercenaries favor these flamboyant vehicles with darkened windows, they become easy targets for insurgents with rifles and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades).
Everyone wanted to talk. Sometimes the discussions grew heated as people demanded assurance that their complaints would be heard by Washington. Filming in the midst of crowds of chanting, jumping Iraqis, Martinez and his crew were keenly aware how the mood of the crowd could change in a moment.
Whenever things got dicey and Martinez was accused of being a US spy, he beat his chest and proclaimed himself "Mexziki!" -- Mexican. Martinez and Wilding had a close call when they were detained by a group of mujahadeen who debated what to do with the captured foreigners. Martinez admits he will never know how close they may have come to sudden death but he concedes that it probably helped that "Jo grabbed my US passport and hid it in her bra."
Asked whether he ever wore a flak jacket, Martinez replied he only wore a jacket once. He felt it only drew attention to him as a potential target. Wilding also said she never wore any protection. "Our presence as internationals was our protection." Of course safety was a concern but, as Martinez noted succinctly: "You live. You die."
There are many ways to die in a place like Occupied Iraq. One afternoon a passing car blew a tire, careened out of control and smashed into a vehicle that Wilding and friends had just parked nearby. "If that parked car hadn't been there, we would all have been killed." Quick, unexpected, illogically. Many deaths in Iraq are associated with cars and not just because of car bombs, Wilding notes. Many people are driving over Iraq's sun-roasted roads on bald tires. "A member of the Christian Peacemaker Team was killed when a bald tire blew out," she recalled.
In one videoclip, Martinez' camera shows the view off the front of a truck as his team rushes medical supplies into beleaguered Fallujah. Some young locals in a small white sedan are racing ahead to help guarantee safety. Martinez explains that he had to stop filming because there was a group of fedayeen up ahead and some of them did not have their faces covered. When the video is released, all of these faces will be digitally blurred. This is crucial because sometimes videos have been seized and used to identify individuals who are then targeted for death. And then the survivors have a rationale for tracking down and killing the filmmaker.
Mercenaries vs. Humanitarians
The presence of mercenaries in plainclothes makes it riskier for all other foreigners. It used to be clear who was a soldier until the Pentagon started handing out contracts to private for-profit mercenary forces. [Maybe Congress should insist that these mercenary soldiers be required to wear uniforms for identification. The US claims the Geneva Conventions don't apply to anyone who is not wearing a soldiers' uniform. To be consistent, the US should insist that the employees of Blackwater Security, CACI and Titan are not covered by the Geneva Convention.]
There is a problem with US military trying to co-opt the image of humanitarian service. This undercuts the work of independent humanitarian groups by blurring the boundary between the two camps. "Now that even Halliburton is calling itself and NGO, real NGOs are at risk," Chatterjee noted. The result has been growing anger directed against all foreigners, even those who are providing selfless service. In Afghanistan, hundreds of humanitarian workers have been targeted and killed since August 2003. This is starting to happen in Iraq as well.
Christian Parenti, who was also in Iraq with tonight's speakers, reports that the mismanagement of the invasion and occupation has given rise to many opposing camps within government and the Pentagon. One of the few plausible (but morally bankrupt) "exit strategies" involves withdrawing from Iraq and letting the country spiral into chaos. "We would still control the oil. We would still control our bases," Martinez said. As long as the country remained in a constant state of turmoil, no political opposition could rise to challenge the US.
Negroponte is the perfect agent to throw the country into endless turmoil. He served this role as US Ambassador to Honduras where he permitted (some say facilitated) the reign of death squads that killed thousands of peasant organizers, students, professionals, labor leaders and political opponents. The failure of the Democrats to stop Negroponte's nomination to become the new US Ambassador to Iraq has not helped elevate the US in the eyes of an increasingly distrustful world.
"If you want to know what's in store for Iraq with Negroponte in charge," one audience member commented, "just go to the Internet and type in 'Negroponte' and 'Honduras.' Or do a search for the CIA's Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual."
The World Will Be Watching the November Elections
Both Martinez and Wilding recalled the incredible generousity of the Iraqi people who welcomed them into their homes and treated them to hot tea and snacks, even though these families had very little money or food. They were frequently told: "We love the American people. We just don't like your government." This made sense to Wilding. "As people who have lived under a dictatorship, they understand very clearly the difference between individuals and governments."
"The women are worse off now," Wilding says. "They use to be able to walk in the streets. Now they are shut in their homes." Girls are not going to school. There is a crackdown on women not wearing cover. Under Saddam, women had official and professional jobs and were part of the workforce. No longer.
Women are confined to homes "now more than ever." Visiting one town, Wilding was whisked off to a roomful of women. "They stared at me for about half an hour. No one spoke." Finally the translator relayed a question: "How was it was that a woman could travel so far from her country, when they were not even allowed out of their homes?" When Wilding left, the women followed her to the door, seeming to lean forward, pressing against "the invisible line."
Wilding recalled how people in Fallujah told her they had seen US soldiers shoot a man in the leg and, once he was down, one soldier walked over and slit the man's throat. Wilding didn't take that report too seriously until later when, in a field hospital in Fallujah, she came across the body of a man who had been shot in the leg and whose throat had been cut.
Wilding ends her report and, as she walks away from the microphone, her body betrays her circus training -- she slips into a clown walk, shoulders back, one leg swinging 'way out in front of the other and hip-dipping into a Mister Natural stride.
The-Edge compliments Wilding on her widely reprinted reports from Fallujah, including one dispatch that was reprinted in the London Sunday Herald [It was edited to remove criticism of Bush but the complete report Inside Fallujah: Days of Bullets, Bombs and Bodies is available on The-Edge]. We ask Wilding if she's been approached by any mainstream media to become an official credentialed reporter. "I wouldn't do it," she replies firmly.
"The whole world is watching the US, especially the next election," Wilding emphasizes. "If Bush is reelected, it will look to the whole world as if the American people have approved of everything Bush has done. It is essential that people turn out for massive anti-war demonstrations at both the Democratic and Republican conventions. And it is essential that the anti-war movement demonstrates the day after the election -- no matter who wins."
Gar Smith is the editor of The-Edge and Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal.
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