when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

London film fest wrap

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I’m breathing many sighs of relief after my screening last night at the Frontline Club here in London. Judging from the facial expressions of the viewers I peeked at during the film—eyes wide open, hands covering eyes—people were engaged. The Q&A, which included the director and protagonist of the documentary that preceded mine, was one of the best in my yearlong film festival saga.

I am not a fan of double bills. Often the pairing is random or pretty damn close. My biggest fear, of course, is, What if the other film is better? But there are many others: What if my doc is scheduled to screen second and the first one sucks? I’ll lose half the audience. What if, what if, what if….

Last night, I had a bellyful of fear bubbling away because Full Disclosure was up second on such a bill. Screening first was Beneath the Sky, a 38-minute doc about war videographer Sulejman Mulaomerovic, directed by Bosnian filmmaker Ismet Lisica. Watching it, I realized that the pairing was inspired.

Lisica built the film around gritty, graphic footage Mulaomerovic shot during the Bosnian war. It’s more a collage than a straight narrative. Interviews with people Mulaomerovic encountered during the war provide milestones throughout the journey on which Lisica takes us. Mulaomerovic submits to a couple of awkward interviews. He shifts from foot to foot, stares at the ground—Mulaomerovic makes it clear he belongs behind the camera. Lisica also introduces us to surgeons who performed countless operations on wounded civilians, journalists who worked with Mulaomerovic, a lawyer who became a soldier who then became a lawyer again after the war, and so many others. But the doc devotes most of its time to the ordinary citizens under fire Mulaomerovic lived with. Soldiers, fighters, generals, snipers—this is not their movie.

Mulaomerovic was in the audience and participated in the Q&A. For a journalist who has seen and lived so much carnage—one doctor in the film talks about stuffing Mulaomerovic’s entrails back into his gut after he got torn up by shrapnel—he is stunningly warm, funny, and quite huggy. When he speaks, he speaks of humanity, of the survivors, their struggles and their attempts to knit their lives back together after the killing stopped.

Full Disclosure is primarily about marines. The nature of embedding limited my contact with ordinary people, but it allowed me to accomplish what I set out to: document what US troops were doing in my name. What I witnessed was, as I have said before, a tragic improvisation enacted on a daily basis. Heavily armed young marines, untrained and unprepared for an amorphous mission, wandered across an alien landscape and through an abused population hunting for invisible enemies. I tried to represent these young men as individuals. I liked many of the men, respected many of them, but what mattered in the context of the occupation—and Full Disclosure—is their life-changing, life-taking power over Iraqi civilians. They were instruments of American policy, and that is what I show.

The focus of our docs is different, but I think the spirit of the filmmakers and the BTS protagonist Mulaomerovic is similar. In response to a question about bravery, Mulaomerovic avoided fluffing himself up and spoke, at length —his translator called him beautifully verbose—about the importance of witnessing. It is the daily process of climbing a hill that never ends. The point isn’t to reach the top but to record everything on the way. He needed to show, to gather essential images—so essential that they’re being used in the Hague trials of alleged war criminals, Lisica told the audience.

I volunteered some of my own motivations for going to Iraq: a sense of responsibility as a citizen and journalist and, I admitted, a secret vanity. During my career as a journalist I had absorbed the message that real reporters cover wars. I hadn’t. But the first death I witnessed amplified the former feeling and erased the latter. Rage filled the gap, rage at the everyday senselessness and casual brutality of the occupation, and a virulent anger at the policymakers who unleash the disease of war—of choice, not defense— yet remain insulated from it. They inoculate themselves with the rhetoric of national security, national interest, nation-building, WMDs, or whatever floats on a given day and send others to die. Although I had a faint, vain hope that I could influence the debate about the occupation—silly after a certain point because there wasn’t one—simply making a record for history of what I witnessed kept me moving.

Ever the photographer, Sulejman—no longer Mulaomerovic to me—rounded me, his producers, festival director Patrick Hazard, who skillfully piloted the Q&A, and anyone who didn’t escape his grasp and posed us in various combinations. Then everyone retired to the bar.

I dashed out of the club to catch a train and passed Sulejman downstairs. He hugged me one last time, then invited me and my partner to Sarajevo.

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