“They consider this the fruit of democracy, the outcome of democracy.” Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh appears on the telephone at the start of My Country, My Country. His caller is apparently upset, as the doctor tries to understand what’s happening: the Iraqi Minister of the Interior has almost been assassinated and “there’s bombing and shooting.” Such violence, the doctor sighs, is the result thus far of the American occupation of Iraq.
Shot during the six months prior to Iraq’s 2005 parliamentary elections, Laura Poitras’ astute, compelling documentary follows Dr. Riyadh’s efforts to treat his patients and look after his wife and six children. He’s also running a seat on the Governorate Council of Baghdad as a representative of the Iraqi Islamic Party. All this as his country appears to be collapsing. The movie focuses on the details of Dr. Riyadh’s days: he spends long hours at the Adhamiya Free Medical Clinic, where patients seek help for physical, emotional, and even financial ailments (the doctor hands cash from his desk drawer to clients in need). “My son goes to school,” notes one parent, “And he doesn’t feel safe.” Neither do the adults.
The film also tracks preparations for the elections by U.S. military personnel and private contractors. They assemble materials (ballots, boxes, even cardboard “booths”), ever aware that they are in a media spotlight as well as a political and military maelstrom. A contractor explains they’ve been hired in part as a means to reduce the number of visible U.S. military uniforms at polling stations. One U.S. Army representative advises his men to keep in mind a figure he calls “Joe Iraqi” (“I don’t want to be disparaging here,” he says, apparently knowing how it sounds). He describes their objective, to work against “the disenfranchisement of a willing voting sect,” namely, the Sunnis. What’s important, he says, is the perception of fairness and openness; voters must believe the election is legitimate, that they have “a voice.” (This sentiment is echoed by Carlos Valenzuela, of the U.N. Electoral Assistance Division, though he notes later that “credible elections seem very, very doubtful”).
The scene is juxtaposed with a television report that runs in the background as Dr. Riyadh and his wife debate the merits of a secular democracy versus one shaped by religious affiliations (“There’s more justice in Islam than in any other system,” he asserts). The report describes the difference between “President Bush the Father” and “Bush the Son.” The latter, intones the voiceover as you watch again the now-familiar image of the toppling Saddam statue, has “completed” the job of “throwing Iraq into a state of chaos and an uncertain future.”
So, even as the elections appear to be a turning point, an important “history-making” moment, they compete for local (and international) television time with the violence that continues to frighten and exhaust Iraqi citizens. Such disturbing contradictions appear repeatedly throughout the film. In one moment, Richard Armitage announces on TV, “The U.S. Department of State has planted the flag and we’re gonna run this show better than anybody thought was possible. It’s going to change the face of the Middle East.” In another, Dr. Riyadh visits with prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison, along with other Baghdad City Council members. The doctor stands on one side of the chain link fence and barbed wire, his interviewees on the other, as he jots down their complaints (they’ve been held for weeks and months without charges or formal process, they’ve been mistreated, they need treatment for chronic and developing diseases). “Pray that God will help us,” says Dr. Riyadh. “We are an occupied country with a puppet government, what do you expect?” The inmates agree, and the scene cuts to a view of city streets from over a U.S. soldier’s shoulder. From here, the future looks bleak.
While My Country negotiates multiple views, its emotional center is plainly aligned with Dr. Riyadh. He works hard to maintain optimism, even as he laments the occupation. When he attends an Iraqi Islamic Party meeting, advocating Sunni participation in the elections, his proposal is voted down, though too late to alter the printed ballots: Sunni candidate names will still appear on the ballots. Dr. Riyadh is heartened, briefly, by support from his patients and neighbors: “We would never vote for an outsider,” says one, though they trust him personally.
Three months before the elections, the U.S.-led Fallujah offensive threatens even the illusion of “security” and stability that elections workers seek to maintain. Dr. Riyadh and his neighbors are more than a little alarmed. Listening to descriptions of the chaos and frustrations concerning problems ranging from evacuations and refugees to injuries (“They need doctors and surgeons like you”), the doctor appears stunned and dismayed but also moved to action. At a Adhamiya District Council meeting, he and others meet with U.S. military personnel to “discuss some things.” The doctor looks at the soldiers: “What is the misunderstanding point that leads to this aggression of a city?” he asks, at once sad and angry. “Many innocent people are killed. It is a process of mass killing.” A soldier nods in sympathy: “I’ve heard everything you’ve just said. Some of what you’ve said has touched me in my heart.”
The film cuts to a car exploded outside, with sirens wailing in the background. A TV news report announces that four people were “killed today at the Abu Hanifa mosque” in Dr. Riyadh’s Adhamiya neighborhood. Women describe the scene: “It was the Americans who did the killing,” says one, breathless. Distrustful of these forces purportedly in place to keep order, Iraqis — especially those in this Sunni area — are also fearful of Shia militias. As if to underscore the daily risks faced by citizens, one day before the election, the son of Riyadh’s friend Hammoudy is kidnapped, and the candidate sets to the task of pulling together a ransom, while comforting the distraught father.
Though the elections were over in January 2005, My Country exposes tensions that remain raw, if ever shifting. Perceptive and poignant, the documentary maintains an observant distance from the sweep of history, and even the elections. As it reveals the many sorts of work that went into making this “show” (as one contractor in Kurdistan describes the elections process, or again, “real live history”), it also offers Dr. Riyadh as a kind of counterpoint. At once representative and singular, sincere, increasingly disillusioned, and committed to his principles, he remains determined to recover his country.