Where normal includes bombs
Laura Poitras’ great documentary “My Country, My Country,” which airs at 9 tonight after a limited theatrical release earlier this year, is, ostensibly, about an Iraqi physician, a minority Sunni, running for political office amid the isolation, fear and destruction in Baghdad ahead of the 2005 national elections.
However Poitras found Dr. Riyadh (his first name is not given) and his family and then gained the intimacy required to document their life, morning, noon and night, they provide a sharp prism into “ordinary” middle-class life in Baghdad -- the new normal of explosions outside and breakfast without electricity. In one scene, as gunfire crackles, family members attempt to swat a fly, hardly flinching at the violence.
It’s this sort of absurdist juxtaposition, evidently part of the mundane everyday in Baghdad, that, of course, slips through the cracks (vast canyons, actually) of TV news coverage of the U.S. occupation and ongoing war in Iraq.
A documentary like this can show you in real time what gets thrown up on screens here, less and less, in the abstract, without video accompaniment. Riyadh is, himself, a sympathetic if sober-faced figure, driving from his free clinic in the Adhamiya district of Baghdad to debates at his Iraqi Islamic Party headquarters and back home.
His lack of emotion pitches the surroundings perfectly. Amid the toll of war that he sees face-to-face at work and news of the U.S. offensive against insurgents to reclaim Fallouja, he remains a believer in the need for Sunnis to vote, though his kids needle him -- one daughter, returning from the polls, says to Riyadh as he shaves: “I voted for my father. Shouldn’t something enter my pocket?”
Poitras’ film needs no narration and has none; it is, in effect, a series of self-contained scenes that take us not just into Riyadh’s world but provide glimpses of the U.S. presence, which comes off as impossibly well-meaning in a violence-torn chaotic world.
For the Americans, it’s about lying low on election day, in part to ensure that the Iraqis put on what one U.S. official calls a “show.”
This official is prepping a group of Iraqis who are to help police the polls, telling them through a translator: “You folks are going to be on television all over the world. You have the front row of one of the best shows there’s going to be in the world. You’re going to be in the history books.”
“Election for show?” an Iraqi asks.
The Americans are still in the position of clarifying.
‘P.O.V. -- My Country, My Country’
When: 9 to 10:30 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for violence and coarse language)