Nice Bombs (2006)

[18 July 2007]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Standing in Between

Two days ago I spent the night at my apartment instead of staying over at my parent’s. I don’t go there too often anymore; it is too close to the “green zone”. Too much gunfire at night. By now almost every Iraqi can tell the difference between a Kalashnikov (what the so-called resistance is likely to carry) and the sound of the machine guns US troops have.
—Salaam Pax (Where is Raed? 7 February 2004)

“I was born in Iraq,” says Usama Alshaibi, “and was recently sworn in as a citizen of the nation that was now attacking it.” At the start of his documentary, Nice Bombs, it’s March 2003, and Alshaibi is safe in Amsterdam, honeymooning with his new wife Kristie. On TV, protests against the war are loud and numerous, followed by the seemingly unavoidable invasion. Within weeks, when Usama and Kristie are back home in Chicago, the Saddam Hussein statue falls and looting commences. Alshaibi observes, “I had a feeling that the news I read and saw was not telling me the full story.”

At the time, many U.S. residents have the same feeling. But Alshaibi, with family back in Iraq, can do something about that: he and his wife Kristie, a fellow filmmaker, determine to go to Baghdad. As the film shows the single photo Usama has of Iraq—a plume of thick black smoke rising over a distant horizon—he recalls his family’s move from Basra to Iowa during the war with Iran and his parents’ divorce. With his father in the Middle East and his mother in the U.S., Usama says, “I felt as if I stood somewhere in between.” From here, he will travel back to Iraq with his father Hameed, who has lived in Jordan since refusing to join the Baath party 24 years earlier. Now that the dictator is removed, Hameed reasons, he will be safe in the land where his tribe settled 500 years ago.

Structured something like a home movie, Usama’s documentary opens with a brief look back on his own life, including his preparation for a U.S. citizenship test (“I see it basically as a career move,” he jokes, then turns serious, “I criticize this country so much because I care about this country”) and, filmed by his camera-bug father, young Usama’s declaration of his “wish for 1987,” that “Reagan is found guilty on the charges to the Iran scandal.” The current footage shows the family’s entry into Baghdad—dark smoke, highway signs (Baghdad/Abu Ghraib), his cousin Tareef, “a cynic and a survivor.” On their first night in Iraq, gunshots go off periodically: “Some weddings might be going on,” Usama says, not quite offhandedly, “and some other things.”

Warned to “be careful of my accent when we go out certain places,” Usama visits with an older uncle (reciting Usama’s lineage name by name) and Salam Pax, a.k.a. Salam al-Janabi, early in the war the subject of U.S. media coverage (including a Nightline spot introducing him as “the mysterious Baghdad blogger”). As Usama’s informal interview with him suggests, what’s missing in the Western press is an effort to understand Iraqis as having more than one attitude, as journalists seek the “ordinary Iraqi position.” Salam’s “position” is complicated: he worries about the turn from Saddam (images of the former ruler no longer have faces) to religious leaders (whose images cannot be so easily rejected, because “you’ll be an infidel, a renegade”), and he is especially troubled by the Western expectation that Iraqis should be “grateful” for their “liberation.” “I get this in so many e-mails,” Salam says. “You come here, you change how a whole country is, you turn everything upside down, and then you go, ‘Whoops, there is no plan. Sorry.’”

Usama’s own complex feelings about his homeland in relation to his new home are never clearer than when he turns his camera on Kristie. Game to meet her new relatives and ride through burned out streets and past U.S. tanks, she notes that in Iraq, “people” are kind (“It’s 100 times warmer than the way people deal with each other in the United States”), and yet (she cringes when bombs explode in the distance or gunfire sounds), “All the guns are a little intimidating. Everyone has a gun.” (The film helpfully and intermittently illustrates, showing kids, women, and men with guns, not wielded in aggression, but only as a matter of course.)

As Tareef and Usama drive through Baghdad, they observe effects of the war: a burned-out bus, uniformed U.S. troops, shot-up buildings. “There is a tension in Baghdad, in the air,” says Usama. “It’s everywhere. The possibility of violence is always near. Sometimes I felt like my camera kept me separate from the real dangers right in front of me.” They approach a U.S. armored vehicle by the side of the road. “Can I shoot that?” he asks Tareef as they drive. Tareef explains the suspicious glance a soldier casts their way: “He look at you because he don’t know what is in your hand.” The troops and the citizens share a tenuous, mutable relationship. Crossing back into Jordan at the end of his vist, Usama chats with a U.S. checkpoint guard, Sgt. Graulau. Asked how Iraqis respond to him, the sergeant says, “Some of them are not too happy with us, I don’t know why. We’ve just given their country freedom.”

Though its interviews and images seem casual, even random, Nice Bombs manages a consistently acute observation of tensions between troops and citizens, expectations and realities. Usama visits a child who extols how “strong” and unafraid he feels in the face of daily bombing (asked what Bush should do, the boy smiles: “Quit!”), a man who describes having an American gun in his face as his child smiles uneasily in the background of the shot, as well as a man who was roused from sleep by a missile landing next to his couch. A cat, mewing loudly and strangely, becomes the recurring metaphor for the decaying situation—by film’s end, a neighbor appears to carry its fly-covered, dying body from Uncle Kama’s yard, literally tossing it down the sidewalk, out of sight. Not subtle, but effective.

At visit’s end, Kristie is sick in bed and Usama is looking forward to their departure (“I think if I stayed here another week, I’d go a little insane”). Back in Chicago, he describes his frustration: “Neither West nor East has a clear picture of the other,” he says, And so, “standing in between,” he sees a common “humanity” that has yet to overcome the divisions. When he and Tareef talk in 2005, both are disappointed and angry. The Americans, like a father with a child who has a “problem,” have a responsibility. “I am worried about how will I get out of this misery,” says Tareef by phone. “Where’s the path to the future? I don’t see it.” A tracking shot of two boys running along the sidewalk freezes on one, caught between now and a future that remains unknowable.

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