Saturday, May 13, 2006

In the Shadow of the Palms

In the Shadow of the Palms” is an Australian documentary film made in 2005. It is the only foreign documentary filmed in Iraq prior to, during, and after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.

The Iraqi war was one of the most media saturated events in history. But it was also strictly controlled by the US military. We had tightly scripted conferences from Washington and the military. We saw the view from Kuwait and Qatar. We heard from journalists holed up in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad and others ‘embedded’ with the armed forces. What we didn't have was the voices of ordinary Iraqis. The makers of “In the Shadow of the Palms” are one notable independent exception to this rule.

The film is a co-production of Ipso Facto productions and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC.) The filmmaker spent ten weeks in Baghdad making the film and it commences four weeks out from the start of the invasion. The film then takes us through excruciating countdown to zero hour as we go from 4 weeks, to 3, to 2, to 1, to 1 day and then beyond in the daily lives of these people.

Bookended by images taken from a U.S. helicopter gunship as it surgically eliminates a target, the film gives an insight into a cross-section of ordinary Iraqi citizens, a window into their everyday realities before, during and after the war. The film shows first hand the effects of the bombing campaign on the lives of civilians. Many locals are interviewed but the four main characters are a professor of Arabic poetry, a wrestling coach (who represented Iraq in the Olympics in the 1980s) an imam and a cobbler.

Their interviews are interspersed with government propaganda on TV. Saddam is almost a peripheral figure in their lives. People may not like their government but they totally resent the coming invasion and its motivations. Even schoolchildren can see it is all about oil.

The filmmaker is Wayne Coles-Janess, a Melbourne based documentary maker in his late 30s. He mortgaged his Melbourne home to help fund the Iraq film. His 1992 drama, On the Border of Hopetown, was nominated for an AFI award. His documentary Life at the End of the Rainbow has also been shown on ABC.

Coles-Janess had his tricky moments in Iraq and was arrested eleven times in all. "One time I was in the neighbourhood at night before the war and these guys grabbed me and thought that I was a pilot that had been shot down or a spy or whatever," he says. "There was a bit of toing-and-froing but luckily some people that knew me in that area heard all the commotion and rescued me."

Another time, he was bundled into a car and taken to military headquarters. There he underwent an ordeal at the hands of two senior army officers as they discussed his fate.

The film shows first hand the effects of the bombing campaign on the lives of civilians. In one very powerful scene, Coles-Janess brings his camera into a bomb site and watches the frenetic attempts to rescue a family of five from the rubble. Two of the children are killed.

Coles-Janess escapes across the border before the Americans take Baghdad. On return to Australia, his tapes are destroyed by suspicious Customs officers. Luckily for him and his viewers, he has made copies which are safe elsewhere. He returned to Iraq after the Americans had handed over provisional control to the Iraqi interim government.

When he returned to Baghdad, he found caution towards him as a Westerner had intensified and some attitudes had hardened. "I think some characters were happy to see me but they were uncomfortable spending time with me. I was definitely seen as the enemy and therefore people would start asking questions. Is he a contractor? Is he with the CIA? What's that family doing with him?"

He tries to track down the people he spoke to before the war. A Palestinian refugee is now homeless and stateless and living in a refugee camp. US soldiers are suspicious of his filming. The Olympic wrestling coach has disappeared without trace. He was arrested when soldiers suspected his car remote control could be used as a bomb triggering device. Everyone he meets is convinced that matters are worse now than before the war. There is a continual atmosphere of resentment and fear.

The film is not without its faults and is marred by some poor production values. The title cards are frustratingly amateurish and the subtitles rife with spelling mistakes. The misspelling of “sacrifice” to read “scarifice” (several times) is almost frightening apt!

However, the documentary is compelling and builds an articulate picture of the rage and powerlessness of the ordinary people. It demands to be seen by those who buy the official US and Australian government line that the Iraqi invasion was just and necessary.


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