We are all well aware of the dangers involved in making a documentary in Iraq these days. So it is particularly courageous that a young American filmmaker should have chosen to record the six-month period running up to the first democratic elections in Iraq last year. Of course this in itself is not enough to make a good film, but Laura Poitras has achieved something that no other filmmaker has yet managed to do. Through her central character Dr Riyadh she has given an intimate, human face to the urbane, educated, scientific and devoutly Muslim Iraqi that rarely, if ever, finds a voice.
In the west, Dr Riyadh might be an ordinary and perhaps unexceptional doctor, but in the context of post-invasion Iraq his life is rendered extra-ordinary. His daily surgery, whilst still busy with mundane complaints of headaches and sore throats, is now the location where exasperated mothers air their concerns about sons and husbands who no longer work and give all their time and money to the Madi army and Muqtada al-Sadr. This peculiar intimacy of the doctor’s surgery is mirrored by the time spent amongst the doctor’s own family. It is here that the normalcy of teenage sons and daughters exists alongside the abnormality of grenade attacks that can be witnessed from the kitchen window at the same time they are being broadcast on TV on the omnipresent satellite television news. Whilst an intimate portrait of life in the eye of the Iraqi maelstrom might have been enough, the narrative strands of the film cohere when the doctor decides to stand as a candidate for the Islamic Party in the elections.
As a Sunni Muslim, Dr Riyadh seeks to represent a minority group in a predominantly Shia country. It is this fact that makes all the difference. As news of the destruction of Falluja arrives at the doctor’s surgery, we realise that not only has the strength of this community been weakened but so, too, has their participation in the election been jeopardised. With access to the UN election organisers, the private Australian security firm that distributes the voter registration forms and the US troops that patrol the city, Poitras is able to dramatically convey the heightened tension that pervades Baghdad as the election day looms. This tension reaches boiling point when a relative of the doctors falls victim to a kidnapping. The ensuing mobile phone conversations with the kidnappers are truly excruciating and reveal as much about everyday Iraqi realpolitik towards the Americans as they do about the collapse of law and order in the city.
Although the move was opposed by the Doctor himself, it was perhaps inevitable that the Islamic Party should have withdrawn from the election, resulting in a paltry vote of some 21,000 for the Sunni minority. Nevertheless, what prevents this film from slipping into despair is the surprising faith demonstrated by the doctor in the democratic process itself. Whilst tragically unrewarded and violently undermined, the lines of Iraqi voters and the glee of family members with an ink stained finger are striking reminders of the potential of the ballot box. It is to Poitras’ great credit that not only has she provided a compelling insight into the first post-invasion Iraq elections, but she has also discovered a reason for tempered hope in her powerful portrayal of the everyday heroism of the good doctor himself.