At the time that I filmed that scene, I had already been filming for six months, and so everybody who was on that raid knew who I was, and knew that I was making a film and while I had never filmed anything like that with them before, they knew that the authority figures had signed off on it, so they weren't going to stand in my way. And having that kind of familiarity just meant that not only could I show up at the office and ask permission to go on that excursion with them and they would say yes, but also that nothing was going to happen to me from their side during the raid unless they accidentally shot me or something.
So from my point of view as a filmmaker it actually wasn't as dangerous to do as it appears. Now it was dangerous and there were a lot of things that could have happened. It could have gone sour. These things are unpredictable, and you don't know what's going to happen when a group of masked men storms a market and starts firing their guns in the air and kidnapping people. Because there had been cases in the past when firefights have broken out and people get killed. And if you wind up in the middle of that kind of situation then things can go badly for you. I was very lucky that nothing like that happened.
I think in general, in Iraq, I was luckier than I wanted to be. And no matter what I did or where I went, the bomb always went off somewhere else. I mean it just always did. I would go down to Najaf in the summer of 2003 to film the Sadr movement, and they would bomb the United Nations compound in Baghdad, and then I'd drive back to Baghdad and there would be a large multi-vehicle car bomb assassination in Najaf where I'd just been the day before. And on and on like that. I was able to walk between the rain drops but I don't want to imagine for a second that it was because of some kind of special skill. I think it was just blind luck.
I think in general, in Iraq, I was luckier than I wanted to be. And no matter what I did or where I went, the bomb always went off somewhere else.
Did you have a form you were looking for from the outset for the film, or did the movie emerge from the material you captured?
More the latter. My own feeling was that the situation could go one of two ways. Because after the war, there was a power vacuum, and there was anarchy on a certain level which is very unstable. I felt it would either degenerate into a kind of civil war, anti-occupation insurgency-type situation, or it would come under the control of some new power that would probably be authoritarian.
I didn't believe for a moment that some kind of blossoming democracy was going to take root in Iraq that was just going to be this bastion of liberal secularism because it was unlikely in the wake of a dictatorship that that was going to happen. I figured I had a kind of window where I could maneuver before things got either too dangerous to work in, or became too authoritarian as they had been under Saddam so that I no longer had the ability to move around and film as I wanted, and to have people speak openly to me.
I was trying to do as much as possible. Unfortunately I'm just one guy and I was operating on a very small budget. And it was very difficult to find someone who would commit to supporting a project in that kind of unstable space of not knowing exactly what was going to happen. So as always I think with these things, I just wound up doing it on my own. I mean that's what you have to do in the end if you think you have a good idea and it's tricky to find sponsorship for it. So I thought maybe I'd make a series, but it wound up being a feature.
One of the things that I would like audiences to come away with... is really how complicated Iraq is and how much humility you have to have in the face of that history and complexity if you want ever to be able to have some kind of positive impact.
What did you discover during that time that you didn't realize before you started shooting?
We, as Americans, do tend to be kind of clueless about the complexity of other countries. And it's really easy to jump into a country like Iraq and think that you know something about it, and try to kind of push things in the direction you think they ought to go. And that's what the United States did when it went in.
And unfortunately I think the concept that the United States had in Iraq was a simplistic one: that there are the Kurds and they have their interests, and the Shiites and they have their interests, and the Sunni, and so on. And we have to cater to and organize Iraq politically around these different interests, and actually going in there this kind of very rudimentary understanding of Iraq only exacerbated those divisions. It didn't help unify the country at all.
And in my film, I do show different perspectives in the country but they're limited to really the individuals or groups that I'm filming. Iraq is an extremely diverse country-- geographically, culturally, in every possible way, there's a lot going on there. And to try to encapsulate it into one film is really impossible. All I can do as a director is to give people a taste of what's going on in this period from different perspectives, in different places.
I'm not trying to make an all-inclusive, definitive film, although it may be a more definitive film than anything else that got made during that period just because I took the time to be in different places and do these detailed stories. It's only fragments of the country; it's little pieces. I want people to see the small pieces of a much broader puzzle.
And I think one of the things that I would like audiences to come away with when they watch the film is really how complicated Iraq is and how much humility you have to have in the face of that history and complexity if you want ever to be able to have some kind of positive impact. In terms of the United States' foreign policy, we simply can't afford to go into places and think that we know everything and think that we understand how it works. I think to a large extent, we did go into Iraq with that kind of hubris and we've paid the price for it and so have the Iraqis.