Meeting Resistance

2007-10-19 (Limited release)

One thing is for sure: this is an insurgency that will be nearly impossible to crush.

Christian Parenti, “Meeting the Resistance,” in The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (The New Press 2004)

Getting rid of the occupation that God damns is the most important thing.

— The Wife

No matter all the surge-is-working talk in Washington, life in Baghdad is dire. Every day citizens struggling to survive, and, in many cases, resisting the U.S. occupation, make choices that might get them killed. Interviewed in Meeting Resistance, Iraqis explain how and why they came to their decisions. Yes, they’re frustrated with the slow “progress” by the U.S. military and administration, just as they’re angry at Iraqi representatives. But beyond basic and wholly understandable emotional responses to being occupied, the resistance fighters’ stories are all very different.

Such diversity gives the lie to the longtime American spin that the “insurgents” in Iraq are primarily wily outsiders or even, as Donald Rumsfeld once famously labeled Saddam loyalists, “dead-enders.” Over the years of war, repeated U.S. failures and ongoing corruption in Iraq have inspired angry, tragic responses. Some people never imagined themselves fighters, others have always fought. The documentary, made by journalists Steve Connors and Molly Bingham, means to let the “resistance” speak, its diverse aspects rendered in abstract identifications: The Imam, The Teacher, The Lieutenant, The Syrian, and The Wife, among others. Interviewees the filmmakers knew were “active against coalition forces” appear in shadow or at angles that obscure their faces, apparently allowing them to speak freely.

The interviews, reports a block of text, were conducted over 10 months following the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. After meeting a member of the resistance in Baghdad’s Adhamiya neighborhood, Connors and Bingham focused their attention there (the very place Christian Parenti, in The Freedom, called “resistance country”). The result is a film that is both impressionistic and acute, journalism and art.

The Warrior introduces himself as a specialist “in street combat and urban warfare,” a former special forces officer who fought the Shi’a insurrection during the Gulf War. In 2003, when the Americans occupied Iraq, he says, “they subjugated me, subjugated my sister, subjugated my mother, subjugated my honor, and my homeland. Every time I saw them, I felt pain. They pissed me off, so I started working.” Other interviewees also understand the resistance as work, as a duty and a matter of honor, whether personal or national, cultural or spiritual. Fingering prayer beads, The Traveler says, “What motivates me is my religion.” He points out as well that in this “country of many wars,” children, even at “five or six years old, think in terms of military strategy when they’re playing with other kids.” As he speaks, the film shows children playing soccer in the street: it’s impossible to tell whether they’re actually thinking about “military strategy,” but in this moment, they seem both sad and menacing, children growing up amid violence and distress, trained up to be fighters, to expect nothing else.

That’s not to say these subjects are insular, or have no sense of the world beyond their struggle. They know well the effects of media, as the documentary grants them a chance to voice their concerns, their frustrations with labels and expectations: The Warrior asserts straight up, the occupiers “shouldn’t think that people are receiving them with flowers.” Such self-consciousness draws attention to the relationship between filmmaker and filmed, always difficult and here, more so. While the filmmakers checked the “credibility” of their “characters” by various means (developing a “‘matrix’ of cross referenced information” based on multiple interviews, links between interviews and events, and the work of other reporters, some released after being kidnapped), the film cannot document such correlations. The truth of it is shaped by trust, between filmmakers and subjects, and between viewers and film. But given the many ways that information about the war is shaped for media consumers, assessing what you see in hear should be habit by now — however that assessing process is influenced by anger, frustration, desire, and confusion.

In other words, you can take the interviews — much as you do other interviews, with politicians, experts, and U.S. military veterans — as simultaneously self-serving and self-expressive, individual and representative, accurate and inexact, all filtered through memory, fear, and resentment. Like every other documentary, Meeting Resistance offers self-performances, responses to queries, and selected compositions and editing. A body floating in a river illustrates the declaration, “They don’t care, they kill anyone.” A butcher whacking at bloody slabs of meat might suggest resolve, industry, or aggression, depending on context. When The Warrior appears in a gym, working out, he discusses the desire for martyrdom (as a kind of inevitable end of years of hopelessness), and The Fugitive’s description of his training in heavy weaponry by elders is accompanied by shots of statues of soldiers, underlining a tradition of veneration and dedication. And when The Wife describes carrying weapons and messages beneath an abaya, less likely to be searched than a man’s clothing.

While such stories and their visual representations illustrate any number of motivations, needs, and justifications. When The Professor appears (undisguised, seated at a desk beneath a map of the world and a fan, in an otherwise stark room), he asks a fundamental question for the film: “What are the resistance’s motives?” His research has led him to at least one conclusion: “One thing is beyond discussion: for any occupation, there will be resistance.”

Most forms of resistance match the violence they mean to counter. Showing scenes of combat (a camera jerks during an explosion nearby) and its aftermath (citizens attend to bodies in the street), the movie mixes abstraction with immediate, harrowing specifics. The Warrior describes “legitimate targets,” especially U.S. military and local collaborators, as the film shows “insurgent footage” of an IED explosion, set off by remote. “There are the policemen who do the police’s job, like chasing gangs, providing order and security,” says The Warrior, “So we leave them alone. But there are police who collaborate with the Americans,” at which point you see a bombed police cruiser, smoking in the street. It’s not imagery you haven’t seen before, on CBS or YouTube, but accompanied by “explanations,” it’s less easy to see here as simply the effect of “war” or “enemy” attacks.

Like No End in Sight, Meeting Resistance argues that the failure of the war was set in its early days, when Iraqis felt alternately abandoned and threatened by Americans, and soon after, occupied. The film reflects the moment of its making, with references to the Abu Ghraib photos (“The time of the noble war has passed”) and Fallujah (when Blackwater employees’ corpses were publicly displayed). But it also looks forward, in part because the shadowy speakers might indeed be “anyone,” a next generation of resistance fighters being conditioned by current events. The “sides” (and they are multiple and shifting, even with U.S. forces, as more recent Blackwater news has underscored) all see themselves as right, or at least, striving to sort out what’s right.

RATING 8 / 10
PopMatters