Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge

21 Days on the Empire's Edge

Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge (Canada/USA, 2004, Director: Stephen Marshall, 84 minutes): Most of the documentaries produced about the Iraq war (and also, for that matter, the Vietnam War) have really been about ourselves. Our motives, our politics, our guilt. What Stephen Marshall has done in Battleground is let us see the war from the perspective of ordinary Iraqis. This is even more remarkable when it’s noted that Marshall, one of the founders of the Guerrilla News Network, admits that much of his previous work was “agitprop”, slanted and polemical. That this film, shot over three weeks in late 2003, is so balanced is thanks in part to a little bit of serendipity.

On the plane to Jordan, Marshall sits next to Farhan (or “Frank” as he now calls himself), a beefy Iraqi-American on his way back to try to find the family he left behind after the first Iraq war. Heeding the encouragement of the first President Bush after Iraq’s army had been pushed out of Kuwait, Farhan joined other Shia Muslims in rising up against the regime of Saddam Hussein. But when Saddam began airstrikes against the rebels, the Americans did nothing, and 100,000 Iraqis perished. Farhan was lucky. He was shot and tortured, but managed to get out of the country with the help of some American soldiers. Fearful of reprisals against his family, he spent 13 years in America without making contact and now he’s returning, not knowing even if any of his family are left alive. This storyline alone would have made a compelling and heartbreaking film, but Marshall weaves Farhan’s story throughout the film, including several tearfully joyous reunions.

There is also Raed Jarrar, an engineer (and incidentally, one of Iraq’s most famous bloggers) monitoring the presence of depleted uranium in American shells used against Iraqi targets. With his Geiger counter, he goes from place to place trying to warn people away from areas of contamination, but with little success. Poor Iraqis melt down the shells and tank wrecks to sell for scrap iron. Contaminated scrap iron.

Then there is the female translator who longs for a return to the days of Saddam, arguing with the Egyptian businessman who thinks the American defeat of Iraq will help it join other “losers” like Germany and Japan into developing into an economic powerhouse. And the American tank commander who cynically predicts that the war isn’t about democracy or oil, but about geopolitical strategic interests, “over the next fifty to a hundred years.”

One thing stood about all the Iraqis in the film. Like any other culture, and especially one with thousands of years of history, the Iraqis are a very proud people. The worst thing about the current occupation is that it is humiliating for the Iraqis. First they were humiliated by Saddam, and now by the Americans. This is something that the American army doesn’t seem to understand yet, how powerful this feeling is, especially when it becomes a rallying point for the insurgency. Even though there are lots of political, ethnic and religious factions in the country, they may yet unite around a shared sense of humiliation, and then things could get even uglier.

All in all, this was a riveting journey into a war zone. And instead of focussing on the explosions, as our simple-minded media have been doing, the film feeds the hunger of viewers like me to see real Iraqis, living their lives under such incredible pressures. There are all kinds of opinions, from full support of the Americans to outright hostility, but people are eager to speak their minds. One of the film’s most moving moments came near the end, when a man said (in my rough paraphrase), “The Iraqis are not the enemies of America. America should stop creating enemies for itself and instead create friends. You can never feel safe in the world if you don’t create friends instead of enemies.” I only hope this film helps even a little bit.

Watch the trailer for the film here.


A Decent Factory

A Decent Factory

A Decent Factory (Finland/France, 2004, Director: Thomas Balmès, 79 minutes): In this documentary, Finnish cellphone giant Nokia sends its recently hired Ethics and Environmental Specialist to China to audit one of its suppliers’ factories. But instead of a manifesto on the dangers of outsourcing and globalization, we get a much smaller film about cultural differences. Well, it’s not exactly that simple, either. I guess this one just didn’t catch fire for me the way I thought it would. Sure, the Finns find labour law violations. But in the presence of the factory’s European management, they tend to focus on small things (some chemicals are stored near the toilets) and gloss over the bigger issues (not a single employee at the factory has signed a contract). The truth is that the entire Chinese manufacturing sector operates by very different rules than the Europeans are used to. I looked forward to hearing the auditors interview the mostly-female employees of the factory, but when they do, they discover the sort of complaints made by factory workers everywhere: their superiors insult them, the cafeteria food is bad. The truth is that none of them actually complain about the low wages, or the forced overtime or mandatory deductions for food and accomodation. It seems like they are content to live in single-sex company dormitories. Things that seem to horrify the progressive Finns don’t seem to faze most of the Chinese.

So, at least by focussing in so tightly on one factory, I think it’s impossible to look at the bigger issues involved in globalization and the migration of jobs overseas. Many of the issues seem to involve more than just economics. There is a lot of cultural disconnection going on as well.

That’s not to say I’m an apologist for unfair labour practices. There are widespread problems with almost all of China’s factories, hinted at by the film. Most factories keep at least two sets of books; one to show the government and auditors like Nokia’s, and one more accurate set. And the issue of government corruption is not even mentioned.

So, even though the film failed to address these issues in a larger context, it was still an enlightening visit to a place where most of the world’s manufacturing will be done in the future, if it’s not already being done there now.


Beneath the Stars

Beneath the Stars

Beneath the Stars (Sweden/South Africa, 2004, Directors: Titti Johnson and Helgi Felixson, 105 minutes): The film follows Frieda Darvel, one of Cape Town’s many street kids, as she pursues her dream of leaving the streets for a singing career. At the beginning, things look bright. Frieda has been selected for South Africa’s “Popstars” TV show, and makes quite an impression on the nation. But all the offers of help (apartment, voice lessons, recording contracts) come to nothing and pretty soon, Frieda is back on the street, sniffing glue with her boyfriend. Though there is a sort of family for Frieda here, there is no future. Many people try to help her, but we’re left feeling uneasy when one of her early backers secures funding for a “reality show” on homeless teens, and when it falls through, simply disappears. In fact, I felt uneasy a lot of the time watching the film, because if people recognize Frieda at all, they immediately demand that she sing for them. Although she clearly loves to sing, it becomes obvious that for many she is just a performing animal and they have no real interest in her as a person. The line between helping her and using her was even a bit fuzzy when I began to think about the filmmakers. That is, until the story took a bit of a twist.

After being invisible for the first two thirds of the film, suddenly directors Johnson and Felixson quite literally enter the frame and invite Frieda to come back with them to Sweden for three months. A reluctant Frieda finally agrees and it is in Sweden where she is finally able to kick drugs and make a real commitment to staying off the street.

She returns to South Africa with some trepidation, but at the film’s end, she is living in Cape Town and beginning to create an independent life for herself.

The film is generally quite effective with the exception of a couple of things. I thought the middle dragged a lot, with far too much footage of sleeping street kids. The misery of their lives was well apparent by this point in the film and it slowed the pace down unnecessarily. Secondly, due to the episodic structure, the film felt a bit disjointed in a few places. We see Frieda with different hairstyles in successive scenes and it makes it unclear how much time has passed. All in all, a powerful film and one that shows that that the personal involvement of the filmmakers is not always a bad thing. The film reminded me a little of Born Into Brothels in that respect.


The Cross and Bones

The Cross and Bones (Canada, 2005, Director: Paul Carrière, 69 minutes): Drumheller is a town in the Alberta Badlands where a lot of dinosaur bones are buried. It’s also the site of an annual Passion Play put on by area churches. The director tries, somewhat clumsily, to get the sparks to fly between the “Creationists” and “Evolutionists” but it’s just not that interesting. The film is also burdened by cheesy voiceover narration and an even cheesier soundtrack. Worse, the fellow who plays Jesus in the Passion Play is a smarmy real-estate agent from Calgary. The only person I found remotely sympathetic in the whole film was the guy who plays Jesus’ understudy, who is the only Christian shown who is not constantly singing crappy worship songs, mugging for the camera or saying dumb things about science. He simply says he’s a human being with faults, too, that he doesn’t have it all figured out, but that he wants to learn “to love people like Jesus Christ did.” But he sort of gets lost behind all the freaks. Did I mention there were also bikers? No, well, it’s not like they really added much more to the mix. A disappointment, considering the extremely clever title.


The Education of Shelby Knox

The Education of Shelby Knox

The Education of Shelby Knox (USA, 2005, Directors: Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt, 76 minutes): This film follows the life of 15-year-old Shelby Knox, a teen living in conservative Lubbock, Texas. Though from a conservative Christian Republican family, Shelby is a feisty and compassionate campaigner for sex education in the public school system, feeling that their “abstinence-only” policy is ignoring the obvious, including higher than average rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The film follows her over a period of three years, as she begins to question the easy answers offered by her church, her school, and her community. She works with a city-funded group, the Lubbock Youth Commission, but when local politicians force the group to tone down its activism, she quits and begins working with a group of gay teens to help them start a Gay Straight Alliance group at school. Despite the fact that Shelby herself has pledged to remain a virgin until marriage, she recognizes that not everyone in her community wants (or in the case of the gay students, is able) to make the same choice. This film is a balanced and compassionate look at one young woman’s political and spiritual awakening. In light of the currently raging culture wars, it’s a must-see for people on all sides of these issues.