International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam

Camera on Terror

What dangers and constraints do reporters and the makers of documentary films face in crisis regions? Are they still able to produce a true picture of day-to-day reality in countries such as Iraq? By Arian Fariborz and Petra Tabeling

photo/filmstill: Andrew Berends
Are journalists working under crisis conditions able to report objectively? Scene from The Blood of My Brother by Andrew Berends

​​One of the thematic focuses at this year's International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam was the impact of terrorism as practiced by global extremist networks, and the effects of the ideologies held by their actors.

Films such as Zarqawi – The Terrorist Issue by Patrice Barrat and Ranwa Stephan, or Hamas Behind the Mask by Shelley Saywell were particularly compelling with their penetrating analyses of radical Islamic organizations in the Near East.

It was not so much the spectacular shots and archive footage of hooded, armed jihadists that viewers found revealing, but instead the painstaking research that uncovered the structures behind the organizations, along with interviews with militant Islamists.

But not everything screened in the course of the Amsterdam festival was this profound. The documentary Shadow of Afghanistan by Suzanne Baumann and Jim Burroughs, for example, purports to be a look back on twenty years of civil war in the Hindu Kush – at least that was the filmmakers' ostensible objective. But what they present instead is a historically distorted view of the actual background and causes of the Afghanistan conflict.

While human rights violations by the Soviet occupiers following the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 are scrutinized in detail for over an hour from the perspective of an Islamic rebel leader, the training of the Islamist mujaheddin by the US and Pakistani secret services, which fostered the bloody civil war and the rise to power of the Taliban, is not even deemed worthy of mention.

The war of the mujaheddin is romanticized as a struggle for the freedom of the Afghan people, while the civil war and the rule of the Taliban is depicted as an alien phenomenon imported into Afghanistan by "strangers" and "Arabs." The US attacks on Afghanistan in reaction to 9/11 and the role Bin Laden has played in the tragedy of Afghanistan are barely touched on in this questionable historic stocktaking that goes on for almost two hours.

American media as PR for Bin Laden?

Utterly different is the standpoint taken by Iranian director Samira Goetschel, who in her film Our Own Private Bin Laden traces a connection between US foreign policy during the Cold War and the instrumentalization of political Islam against the Soviets, taking Afghanistan as prime example. In her documentary, the filmmaker also criticizes the way the daily media handle terrorism and extremist organizations.

"The constant barrage of images of terrorist attacks is almost like free advertising for the terror organizations, and that's exactly what they want to achieve," in Goetschel's opinion. "I'm not saying that the media should ignore terrorist attacks, but they have to be careful how they depict them. Currently, the American media is almost acting like a PR agent for characters like Bin Laden!"

A very personal cinematic confrontation with terrorism was chosen by Swedish film author Lina Makboul. In her documentary film debut, Hijacker - Leila Khaled, the 32-year-old journalist of Palestinian origin cautiously approaches her onetime idol. Khaled, the first female activist in the PFLP in the 1970s, tried to hijack two passenger flights in order to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinians after the Six-Day War.

Makboul ultimately succeeds in gaining Leila Khaled's trust. In 2004 she visits the radical Palestinian and her family in Amman, trying over the course of numerous interviews to find out more about Khaled's motivations and her current views on political violence. "When does the struggle for freedom become terrorism?" is one of the central questions asked in her film.

Media at the center of the political tug-of-war

In many of the documentaries screened at the festival that deal with violence and extremism, the perceptions and interpretations of reality in and by the media are interrogated. Can media even hope to reproduce an accurate picture of present-day realities in countries such as Iraq, without taking sides or falling victim to political instrumentalization?

photo: Arian Fariborz
Maziar Bahari, director of the film Targets: Reporters in Iraq, with Hannah Allam, who plays a role in the film

​​In his film Targets: Reporters in Iraq, Iranian filmmaker Maziar Bahari looks at the dangerous working conditions faced by journalists in Iraq, especially since the American offensive in Falluja in 2004.

He sketches the restrictive security requirements for western journalists, and delves into the abductions of Italian reporter Sgrena, French journalist Chesnot and Canadian correspondent Taylor. Here, journalists are shown as targets of radical Islamists, as mortgage for rebels, as constrained actors who often risk their lives practicing their profession in Iraq.

Bahari, who made many trips to Iraq starting in 2004, highlights the fact that no research can be conducted there without taking strict security precautions. Only Iraqi journalists can move about freely, but cannot necessarily produce critical reports; the reporters who have the best chances are western correspondents with an Arab background. It's a shame that the film doesn't develop this theme further.

Blonde, blue-eyed journalists hardly stand a chance of working in Iraq, Bahari claimed in an interview after his film's debut Amsterdam.

"Act like a normal human being"

But filmmaker Andrew Berends from New York went about proving that the opposite is true. The blonde, blue-eyed US citizen traveled to Iraq in April 2004 and spent the next six months there. And he did it with only a movie camera in tow and without the heavily armed chaperones that director Bahari, for example, made use of for his work in Iraq.

photo: Arian Fariborz
In his film The Blood of My Brother. A Story of Death in Iraq, American director Andrew Berends tells the story of the war from the viewpoint of its victims

​​Was this really as naïve as it seems? "Maybe," Berends says, "but for me the safest and most effective way to go was without bodyguards, weapons and extensive equipment. I don't know how I would have been able to make an authentic and good film if I had had to deal with all of that baggage. I wanted to make a film in which I get as close as possible to people. The most important thing is to be open and honest and to act like a normal human being."

Perhaps this is why Berends' documentary The Blood of My Brother. A Story of Death in Iraq, which is about the life of a young Iraqi whose older brother is shot by accident by US troops in Baghdad, seems so authentic.

The film gives the viewer deep insights into the difficult living conditions of the family of the victim and shows what challenges young Iraqis must overcome these days to support their families.

These are moving images that don't shy away from showing the harsh realities of the lives of the victims of the war in Iraq, but without pronouncing judgment or providing polemic commentary. This is perhaps what makes The Blood of My Brother the best documentary shown at this year's festival.

It is a film that demonstrates impressively that journalism in war zones is indeed possible without resorting to tendentious accounts, uniform agency reporting or "embedded journalism," and without suffering from the supposed lack of freedom of information. And it is one of the very few films that recount the story of the war and of terrorism from the perspective of the civilian population of Iraq.

Arian Fariborz, Petra Tabeling

© 2005

Translated from German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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