Film Review: Après la guerre

Martin Kramer, “Après la guerre,” Middle East Quarterly, vol. 8, no 4. (Fall 2001), pp. 84-89.

Of the many questions haunting the Middle East, two concern the legacies of recent conflicts when Arab fought Arab with fanatic gusto. Iraq and Lebanon are now both a decade after their wars, but question-marks still hover over the aftermath. Are the sanctions against Iraq effective, and whom do they really hurt? Has Lebanon moved beyond the trauma of war, far enough to reclaim its suspended independence? Filmmakers have attempted to answer both questions, with widely different degrees of art and integrity.

Filming Sanctions

Western documentary filmmakers have crossed the borders of Iraq in growing numbers over recent years,. Their motives have varied, but most of the filmmakers have addressed two questions: what have been the effects of the economic sanctions, and how has the country managed to survive them? Answers are complicated by the fact that filmmakers cannot freely wander about Iraq shooting documentary footage. Rather, they are accompanied by government “minders,” whose job it is to guide the filmmakers to certain locations—and certain conclusions.

The two most important conclusions might seem contradictory, but they perfectly complement one another. The first is that the sanctions are killing innocents, especially children, in very great numbers. Policy implication: on humanitarian grounds, the United Nations must end the sanctions. The second is that Iraqis have learned to live normal lives under sanctions, which constitute no more than an inconvenience. Policy implication: on practical grounds, the West might as well call off the sanctions. The first conclusion requires that we see Iraqis suffering and dying, as though sanctions had transformed the country into a wasteland of malnutrition, medical shortages, and impoverishment. The second objective requires that we see Iraqis buying and selling, dining and marrying, as though Iraqis hadn’t a worry.

Killing the Children1 serves the first objective with militant resolve. British journalist John Pilger, begins with a certain advantage: no one disputes that infant mortality has risen in Iraq and that the weakest people in Iraqi society have borne the brunt of the sanctions regime. But any film journalist operating under Iraq’s usual constraints—ever-present minders who decide what they can and can’t film, and whom they can and can’t interview—should be wary of extreme claims. Pilger instead makes them with a breathtaking abandon. For him, sanctions are an abominable war crime, a slow Hiroshima that kills children first. See the doomed children. (The drugs for treating them are unavailable.) See the school inundated by raw sewage. (The allies bombed the treatment plants.) See the horrible birth defects. (The allies used depleted uranium warheads.)

This is precisely the message the Iraqi government wishes Pilger to convey, and while the suffering on display is not staged, the Iraqi doctors and nurses who put it in context are obviously very well-rehearsed. In fact, the same hospitals and doctors appear in film after film. (No crew ever misses the cancer ward in Basra’s hospital, which is run like a kind of freak show to parade the alleged effects of depleted uranium.) This is the official tour.

The most astonishing sequence in the film—a credit to Pilger’s dogged style—was not filmed in Iraq at all. It is an interview in New York with Peter van Walsum, the Dutch chairman of the U.N. Security Council’s Iraq sanctions committee, charged with administering—and justifying—the sanctions regime. Pilger asks the familiar double-standard questions. If the Iraqis are subject to sanctions because of their weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program, then why is Israel not subject to the same? And if Iraq is sanctioned because of its treatment of its Kurdish minority, why is Turkey not sanctioned for its treatment of the same? There are also standard answers to these loaded questions, most notably that Iraq is in a league of its own in past use of WMD, precisely against Kurds. Yet van Walsum is completely flustered by Pilger’s interrogation. No wonder the resolve behind the sanctions regime is flagging: its U.N. administrators cannot make the simplest and best-known rationales on its behalf.

Full film, Paying the Price

So you see through Pilger’s polemical purpose? And you are not persuaded that the sanctions are destroying a generation of Iraqis? Then for you, there is Vingt ans … à Bagdad2 (Aged 20 … in Baghdad), by French television journalist Michel Honorin. Here are the young people of Baghdad, pretty much going about business as usual, working their way around sanctions with consummate skill. Honorin’s film cruises from weddings to discos, billiard halls to restaurants, campuses to shops, documenting the twenty-somethings in the pursuits typical of their generation. Everyone seems reasonably well-dressed; everyone has the great wads of Iraqi currency needed to make the simplest purchases.

Are there hardships? The well-groomed daughters of an upper class family shed tears. They don’t have much money for the things young people have in the West, and their mother laments that they have never traveled out of the country. At the art institute, the students don’t have new paints. (But they manage; Iraq’s tradition in painting and sculpture, we learn, is strong.) At the technical institute, the texts are obsolete. There are no Western films in the cinema, only the old Egyptian and Lebanese standbys. Students who have family obligations must work to make ends meet. And there is a pervasive sense of isolation from the latest trends in the world.

Yes, these are real deprivations, but they are hardly Hiroshima. Indeed, it is not even the worst time to be young in Baghdad. After all, a generation earlier, hundreds of thousands went to the Iranian front and never came back. (In this film, Baghdad’s war memorial, with the names of the fallen etched in marble, looks like the emptiest place in the city.)

The import of this film is fairly straightforward: Iraqi society—the parts of it that really count—are nowhere near the breaking point. This, too, is a message that the Iraqi government wishes to send the West. The difference is that the moralizing British are made to see the starving Iraqis, while the pragmatic French get to see the feasting ones.

How can one escape the grip of the ever-present minders, and come away with something authentic? One answer: film them. This is precisely what BBC journalist Sean McAllister did in The Minders.3 McAllister was on assignment in Baghdad in early 1998 after Saddam had blocked the weapons inspections, awaiting the arrival of cruise missiles. When the crisis temporarily lifted (without missiles being dropped), McAllister decided to turn his camera on his two minders. The two portraits-in-miniature tell a fundamental truth about the sanctions: the further you are from the inner ruling circle, the more they pinch. One Iraqi hardly knows the meaning of a shortage and will happily treat you to an ice cream at your hotel. Another has to sell his furniture, his Andy Williams and Sinatra albums, and even his pin-ups of British football stars, just to eat.

‘Ala’ is a veteran ministry of information official: an affable bachelor, secure in his sinecure, a bit of a dandy, and a soft touch. Yes, he has known better days: before Iraq became a “rogue state,” he traveled abroad (his photo album is full of Western “girl friends”), and he accompanied foreign dignitaries on their Baghdad visits (here he is with a Russian cosmonaut). What he calls his “golden days” are over, but he’s weathering the sanctions just fine, thank you. Kifah, soulful and philosophical, is a part-time minder whom the ministry only taps when the foreign journalists swarm the Al-Rashid Hotel. He lives from hand to mouth, with his aged mother, in a house where everything not absolutely essential has been sold off.

Paradoxically, Kifah is a more persuasive representative of loss than the children supposedly irradiated by depleted uranium. He has spent the last decade, he says, “simply struggling to stay alive.” He built no house, bought no car, married no woman, traveled nowhere. “This is my kingdom,” he reflects, surveying his bare bedroom. People like Kifah—educated, eager for contact with the world, political outsiders—were supposed to put a brake on Saddam. Instead, the sanctions left them completely absorbed with daily survival. “Are you proud of your country?” McAllister asks. Kifah hesitates, “Should I be?” And then, “I think it’s my duty.” The sense of resignation that pervades Iraqi society could not be better summarized.

Another way to escape the usual tour is to go beyond Baghdad into the south of the country where the scars of two wars mingle together with the effects of the embargo. Photojournalist Baudoin Koenig got his permission to venture southwards by telling the Iraqi authorities he intended to make a film on problems of water and agriculture. Of course, he had minders during his sojourn in the south (“always the guides behind me, whispering the correct answers” to his interviewees). Yet Koenig managed to collect some unscripted segments for his two films, Tears of Mesopotamia4 and La mer sous embargo.5

Tears of Mesopotamia provides the political context. Southern Iraq has suffered more than Baghdad from the effects of the embargo because the destruction left by the Iran-Iraq war was never made good and because the south remains tainted by the stain of a rebellion against Saddam in 1991 that failed. The port of Basra, the first city to rise up in 1991, has the look of still being on its knees. No ship has docked here in nearly twenty years; the Shatt al-‘Arab waterway remains littered with the hulks of sunken tankers and freighters. Fresh water in the city is exceedingly scarce (it costs more than kerosene).

The minders point to the effect of sanctions, but why do those sanctions weigh so disproportionately on the south? One of Koenig’s interlocutors, a Shi‘a, suggests an answer, telling on camera of the rebellion and his own torture (he fled to Iran before the film was released). Another Shi‘a gives the filmmaker a video that shows rebels who are still active, setting up ambushes in remote places. The major infrastructure investment of the regime is not the repair of war damage; it is the great artificial river that has drained the swamps, leaving the recalcitrant “marsh Arabs” high and dry. They are marched before the camera to praise the wisdom of the draining. But the south, it is obvious, is still under suspicion and pays the price for it.

La mer sous embargo is more focused on the sanctions. The south is actually the major gateway to Iraq. Foreign ships now dock at Umm Qasr, where permitted imports are shipped in, and Iraqi oil is shipped out. (Children await the grain trucks as they leave the terminal to collect grain that falls onto the roadway.) But it is really the footage from Fao that provides yet another explanation of how Iraq has weathered the sanctions: sheer human resourcefulness.

Fao’s oil terminal remains a ruin of twisted metal. But Fao’s ramshackle fishing fleet has gone from 80 to 1,200 vessels, plying the 25 square kilometers of Iraqi territorial waters in the Gulf—an area about the size of a lake. The shipyard at Fao is testimony to Iraqi ingenuity: shipbuilders, working with almost no machinery, miraculously turn scrap metal into fishing boats. Such resourcefulness, duplicated in every area of life, has done much to diminish the effect of the sanctions, which have turned the Iraqis into master improvisers.

Full film, La mer sous embargo

The bottom line of these documentaries, showing slices of everyday life in Iraq, is that the sanctions have punished precisely the wrong people. While the “wrong” people of Basra trudge through mud to fill jerry cans with river water (a scene filmed by Koenig), the “right” people in Baghdad picnic and dance in well-tended parks (a scene captured by Honorin). But the impact of the embargo on the Iraqi people is only half of the story of the sanctions. The other effects—on Iraq’s military capabilities and weapons of mass destruction—cannot be told by film. Documentaries, like sanctions, have their limits; with these films, the filmmakers can be said to have reached them.

Beirut Scars

Lebanon also beckons the documentary filmmakers. The place is now safe for foreigners, and the country remains a place of striking contradictions that few directors can resist. One part of Beirut looks like a stage set for a futuristic apocalypse film set in the ruins of modern urban civilization. Another part looks like the opening sequence of “L.A. Law,” full of flashy office blocs. And there are no minders here. The first documentaries to come out of post-war Lebanon dwelt upon the war generation. But Lebanon is a demographically young country, so memory of the war has very quickly grown foggy—perhaps too quickly, for the war’s lessons were never clearly learned by Lebanon’s leaders.

Danielle Arbid is a young Lebanese filmmaker, raised in France, who returned to Beirut in a quest to understand the conflict that ravaged her country. Her Seule avec la guerre6 (Alone with War) tells how the civil war has receded, and been made to recede, from the conscience of Lebanon. As the title of the film suggests, her pursuit is a solitary one. Those who lived through the war prefer to forget it. “It is psychological, my dear,” one passerby tells her. “Everything must be forgotten. It was an insignificant war. It was imposed on us.”

Beirut, of course, is strewn with silent ruins. (One self-advertised “guide” explains that a tour of the “Green Line,” which separated Muslims from Christians, costs $200 a day, but adding “sites of massacre, torture and kidnapping” costs $400.) But these terrible places where bloody massacres took place are attested to by no more than pockmarked walls, which will no doubt be bulldozed into the ground; they are no substitute for a proper memorial, which are entirely missing. The bereaved keep private memorials on their mantles, but there is no sense of collective loss. At the scenes of massacres (Sabra and Shatila, Tal a-Za‘tar), there are no memorials. Nor is there one on the “Green Line.” In fact, nowhere in Lebanon is there a single memorial to the fallen.

At one point, Arbid manages to corner Interior Minister Michel El-Murr as he bolts for his car. Will there be a memorial to the Lebanese war? The army has a memorial, he replies. And what of the civilians? The army represents the nation. A parliamentary deputy tells her that “The only memorial we will construct will be to the resistance against Israel, and no other.”

But it is not so easy to forget. The former militiamen whom she interviews are either haunted by their memories or nostalgic for a time when their lives had some overarching purpose. Then there are the thousands of disappeared. Their mothers assemble on a street corner, bearing their photographs. (The police tell them to move on.) Arbid ends the film with a visit to her father, who still keeps a revolver under his pillow. “It is a part of me, like my wife, like my daughter.” Across Lebanon, revolvers are still under pillows (and easy enough to buy on the street). These are the wages of silence.

Excerpt, Seule avec la guerre

The man who personifies the will to forget is Rafiq al-Hariri, who served as prime minister from 1992 to 1998 and was reelected again in October 2000. One purpose of Solidère, Hariri’s private corporation for the reconstruction of Beirut, is to bulldoze away the physical traces of the war. And certainly the most peculiar documentary to come out of Lebanon is the portrait of Hariri by Omar Amiralay, L’Homme aux semelles d’or7 (The Man with the Golden Soles).

Yes, it’s an odd combination: Amiralay, a Syrian Marxist, better known for his films on intellectuals (Syrian playwright Sa’dallah Wannus, French sociologist Michel Seurat), has done Hariri. Amiralay was a bit hesitant about the idea, and the film includes sequences in which his mother warns him against criticizing the formidable man while his intellectual friends worry lest he be seduced. At first, Hariri, too, is not so sure he wants Amiralay to film him. Perhaps the filmmaker will use a camera to assassinate his character? As Amiralay discovered, Hariri is so wary of his image that he staffs a small library devoted to recording and cataloguing all of his media appearances.

Nothing to fear: Amiralay slowly succumbs to the allure of the great man of Lebanese politics. Here is Hariri standing on some kind of dock at night, a lone, receding figure, an enigma. Here he is in humble robes, in his mountain palace, ruminating on the meaning of his life. Here he is engrossed in the country’s business, at his sprawling desk in his private jet. Here he is looking out on Beirut from his penthouse office above the city, the solitary, self-made, self-contained man. Hariri engages in some self-deprecation, but his bottom line is clear: “I regret none of my economic or political choices.” “In this kind of duel between the man of power and the intellectual,” Amiralay has told an interviewer, “the intellectual always loses.” Amiralay is absolutely right: he has produced a subtle work of sycophancy of Hariri, of a Hariri excised from the complex nexus of Lebanese politics and Syrian hegemony.

But in its own way, the film tells something about the appeal of Hariri: he is the clean slate, a man not implicated in Lebanon’s wars, a super-contractor who tears down the past to build a new, antiseptic present behind reflecting glass. He is no Berlusconi, he insists; his money was made before he entered politics, outside the borders of Lebanon. He established Solidère because no one else would. In the cut-and-thrust with Amiralay, he argues perhaps his most important point: he did not need a political role, and if he sought one, it was only in a moment of vanity. Now it is a matter of fidelity to the idea of Lebanon.

At the end of the film, Amiralay brings his intellectual friends together around a table where they vent the usual criticisms of Hariri. He turned his money into power; he represents the old order; he is not a national figure, but a Sunni za‘im, a sectarian leader. Perhaps this is meant to disabuse the viewer of any notion that this film is a testimonial. But could it be anything else? And might it be more than this: a longing to see Lebanon finally cleansed? The opening and closing scenes show Solidère’s cleansing of Beirut’s massive wartime dump. No evictions, no demolitions: just the clean-up.

Excerpt, L’Homme aux semelles d’or

The evidence continues to accumulate: conflicts in the Middle East are not resolved. They enter latency. In Iraq and Lebanon, there has been a remission, but there has also been much denial—and the revolvers remain under many pillows.

1 Bullfrog Films, 2000.
2 France 2, 1999.
3 BBC Productions, 1998.
4 La Sept ARTE/Point du Jour, 1998; available in English from Filmakers Library, at
5 France 3 Thalassa/PdJ Production, 1998.
6 Movimento Production/Versus Production/La Sept ARTE/RTBF/Wallonie Image Production, 2000.
7 AMIP/La Sept ARTE/Maram CTV, 2000.