A Different Truth
[President Bush] speaks of “abroad” as if it is a vague desert-land filled with heavily-bearded men and possibly camels. “Abroad” in his speech seems to indicate a land of inferior people, less deserving of peace, prosperity and even life.
—Baghdad Burning (1 July 2005)
Director Hayder Mousa Daffar had a dream, to make a documentary about his Iraq. Not, he says, the Iraq that he sees “on the internet, on the news… bombs and explosions,” but a country where people lived, and survived, and aspired for more. To achieve this end, he struggled, he scraped, and he assembled a squad of “contributing directors,” each taking his or her camera to the areas of Baghdad or elsewhere that seemed especially to need representation. The resulting film, The Dreams of Sparrows, is an astonishing compilation of images that end up being less strictly coherent than provocative and illuminating.
Equal parts excavation and observation, political treatise and moral lament, Dreams—recently released to DVD, with deleted scenes and a brief but affecting director interview as extras—is the manifestation of Daffar’s belief that art is transformative, or at the least, communicative. “All artists in Iraq,” he says, “or in the world, really artists, I mean, don’t care about anything, just looking for beauty in this world. And truth. Because truth make from people a good people. The arts is power, because knowledge is power.” Committed to the idea that truth is multiple, yet also discernable, Daffar creates gaps between visual and verbal registers, asking you to parse meaning in between, to grasp the many stories of everyday survival, grief, and resilience.
“I couldn’t believe I was finally making a documentary about Iraq,” he exults, as the film cuts together fleet images of “Iraq,” zooms in to a cat glimpsed through broken walls, a dog trotting along the street, chickens scrapping on sidewalk, children looking up at the camera, adults bending to up wreckage, and U.S. troop guarding something, armed and uniformed, from a distance. This brief montage gives way to Daffar’s meditation on ideals that have shaped Iraqi culture. “The Iraqi people,” he says, “have always had a strong leader,” as you see posters of Arnold and Steven Seagal intercut with shots of a young man working out at the gym and Saddam Hussein in his infamous balcony days, waving his gun and posing for obedient crowds.
Just a short time later, 15 December 2003, he hears that Saddam Hussein has been captured: as images of the raggedy former leader with U.S. fingers in his mouth appear on tv, Daffar and his fellow directors interview people on the street to learn their responses, ranging from pleasure to skepticism to dismay. For a moment, it seems that a U.S. promise has been kept—the dictator has been thwarted and confined—and even so, reactions are mixed. A boy looks right at the camera, an iris effect exacerbating a fish-eye effect: “We used to like him in the past,” he smiles, “but now we don’t.” The folks on Baghdad streets are as complex and varied as any in the U.S. “Now that Saddam Hussein was gone,” sums up Daffar, “many Iraqi people thought that George Bush was the new hero. Other Iraqi people just waited for Saddam to return to take over the country again.” Just so, a man wonders out loud what the celebration is about: “You should be filming the gas line, the commotion, and the garbage,” he says.
To illustrate in more detail the range of reactions, Daffar visits two sites, a Private Girls School and a nearby Temporary Homeless Shelter for Children. In the first, the girls are well-dressed, studious, and polite; one explains that now she feels “secure.” They make drawings of their experiences: one draws people hiding (“The war happened, and people got scared and they ran to shelters to hide”), another a battle (“Here the tank is aiming at the helicopter”), and still another draws people at ease (“Now we draw streets and happy people and pretty colored things”). Their drawings show neatly crayoned tanks and trees and women in bright dresses. “While the girls may be telling the truth,” observes Daffar while his camera heads down the street to the shelter, “What they say is not true for all Iraqi children. Five blocks south of the school, I went to find a different truth.” Here, kids who have lived here since the American invasion, describe their hardships, preyed on by criminals and pornographers.
Dreams is comprised of dissimilar and also related stories, each related by Iraqis rarely seen in U.S. news reports: college student Susan makes dolls (“To forget the war,” she explains, “I’m always sewing,” a Michael Jackson poster on her bedroom ceiling); inhabitants of a temporary Palestinian refugee camp in Baghdad (“Each day here is as long as a year”); and a woman in tears over her lost home and family (“Why is this? why America?”). When a U.S. sergeant pronounces, “Our mission is to provide everyday stability for Baghdad,” the film starts a sequence on the long gas lines—stretching for miles and miles (in speedy time-lapse), with attendant observations regarding the irony of this oil-rich country now suffering from a lack of oil. Taxi drivers offer their takes on the situation (“They came to say that they are liberating us from the menace of Saddam Hussein, except they are the menace. They themselves are the menace”) and inmates at Sadr City’s Mental Hospital for the Criminally Insane (when Daffar asks whether any cases have been “affected by the regime,” a doctor answers, exasperatedly, “They are all affected by the regime”).
Two different artists declare the need to preserve history in painting and sculpture, one representing the Abu Ghraib abuses by U.S. soldiers, the other marking the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The past is all over Iraq’s present, and the overriding question that recurs throughout Dreams is whether Saddam or the current situation is worse. A contributing woman filmmaker responds, “It is not better or worse. The occupation is bad and Saddam is bad. This is the truth. The occupation is bad and Saddam is bad.” The camera cuts to a photo of Bush in his Mission Accomplished flight suit on the shelf, which can only seem ironic here.
“I am so confused and so sad,” Daffar says at last, speaking through his camera. “If you try to fight America, you just kill Iraqis. If you work with the Americans, you wait, and wait, and hope.” In either case, the future remains out of reach and for the time being at least, beyond everyday Iraqis’ control.