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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 February 2007, 00:22 GMT
Iraq films battle for Oscar glory
By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

The makers of two films on the situation in Iraq discuss being shortlisted for this year's best documentary Oscar.

Mohammed Haithem in Iraq in Fragments
Orphan Mohammed Haithem is one of Iraq in Fragments' subjects
For many in Hollywood, An Inconvenient Truth - Al Gore's film on the dangers of climate change - is certain to win this year's Academy Award for best documentary feature.

The former vice president has been internationally lauded for his environmental activism, while his film has received rave reviews.

If Gore has already written his acceptance speech, however, he is perhaps being premature.

For two films offering ground-level insight into life in Iraq since the US-led invasion could pose a strong challenge to the current favourite.

Also in contention are Deliver Us From Evil, about a paedophiliac priest allegedly harboured by the Catholic Church, and Jesus Camp, a documentary about young Christian evangelists.

Resentment

In Iraq in Fragments, James Longley views the strife-torn country from the perspectives of an 11-year-old orphan in Baghdad, Moqtada Sadr followers in Nasariyah and Najaf and Kurds seeking independence in the north.

The Oregon native spent more than two years following Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, ending up with 300 hours of footage.

Laura Poitras
Director Laura Poitras spent eight months shooting in Iraq
New York-based Laura Poitras, meanwhile, worked alone in Iraq for eight months to make her film, My Country My Country.

Her subject is a doctor and Sunni political candidate who, despite being opposed to the US presence, participates in the January 2005 elections.

While their films reflect mounting resentment towards occupying forces, Poitras and Longley say their aim was to record, not polemicise.

"I'm no Michael Moore," says the latter, referring to the controversial director of Fahrenheit 9/11. "I didn't have a political agenda.

"But what the film does do is give the audience a much broader picture of Iraq than they get from ordinary media."

Threatened

"If you see our films you get a better sense of the country than you would from mainstream news coverage," adds Poitras.

"We don't get to hear that perspective in the US - what Iraqis want for their country, and what they're going through."

My Country My Country
My Country My Country features scenes at Abu Ghraib prison
The peril of being an American in Iraq was not lost on either film-maker, though both took it in their stride.

"Iraq is the most dangerous country in the world," says Longley.

"But I didn't take more risks than any other journalist working there, and I probably took less than many."

"You can't go to Iraq without knowing you might not be coming home," agrees Poitras.

The 42-year-old recalls being threatened during one street protest but describes this as an isolated incident.

'Lamentation'

Indeed, she was more perturbed to find her work in the Middle East had prompted her own government to regard her as a potential terrorist threat.

Returning to the US from a visit to the 2006 Sarajevo Film Festival, she was stopped at both Vienna and JFK airports.

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore's film is tipped to win the best documentary Oscar
"The customs people told me I had a very high threat score, which was a bit upsetting but mostly absurd," she says.

The title of Poitras' film comes from the Iraqi anthem, though the director also sees it as a "lamentation" for her country's role in Iraq's ongoing instability.

Iraq in Fragments has a similar dual meaning, conveying not just the film's tripartite structure but also the notion of a land in disarray.

"I'm certainly not advocating the dissolution of Iraq, and I personally don't think it's a good idea," says Longley.

"But it's part of the reality that they are more forces pulling the country apart than there are holding it together."

The Academy Awards will be held in Los Angeles on 25 February. Iraq in Fragments is playing at the ICA in London.


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