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PBS P.O.V.: 'My Country, My Country'

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Laura Poitras
Filmmaker
Thursday, October 26, 2006; 11:00 AM

Filmmaker Laura Poitras was online Thursday, Oct. 26, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss PBS P.O.V film " My Country, My Country ," for which she spent eight months alone in Iraq profiling the lives of everyday Iraqis. Her primary subject, known as Dr. Riyadh , is a Sunni political candidate and medical doctor who sees the effects of war daily. Dr. Riyadh opposes U.S. occupation and calls for civil resistance, while hoping for a democracy based on Islamic principles. Poitras follows him on an inspection at Abu Ghraib prison, where he petitions on behalf of detainees, and in his daily life providing free treatment to residents of the restless Adhamiya neighborhood in Baghdad. Filmed in the months leading to the January 2005 national elections, "My Country, My Country" is an up-close look at post-invasion Iraq and the complicated and heartbreaking realities of life on the ground.

The transcript follows.

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Utica,N.Y.: Laura -

I sometimes monitor overseas elections in some tough places (Bosnia, Kosovo, etc) and am, incidentally, an American of Lebanese descent, who has traveled throughout the region. Your film brought back many memories about running an election in a difficult place. More important, it put a human face on the "Iraqis" and, for lack of better words, simply reminded me that people are people wherever you go.

I hope more Americans get the opportunity to see your movie -- I believe it will likely teach them more than CNN and Fox.

On an unrelated note, I'd love to share a cup of coffee with you sometime in NYC.

Laura Poitras: Thank you for this note. Carlos Valenzuela from the U.N. did an very interesting interview that is posted on the POV web site. He talks about the difficulty of running elections in a war zone.

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New York, N.Y.: If you have such an anti-U.S.. military and anti U.S. occupation point of view, as demonstrated by your pleasure in choosing Dr. Riyadh for his defiance of U.S. military personnel, and as demonstrated by your giving maybe one or two minutes to pro-U.S./pro-coalitionIraqiss in the north, did your camera end up showing ultimately that U.S. military personnel were reasonable, compassionate, self-controlled, well-trained and well-educated culturally, whereas the Iraqi women who commented on how the Americans were shooting innocent people, turned out to be shown by your cameras to be foolishly reporting hearsay and misinformation, as the soldiers were in fact shooting at buildings. How come your cameras showed something different from your personal anti-American point of view?

Laura Poitras: Thanks for writing. I don't think being critical of a policy is being anti-American. I think not listening to each other is part of the problem in the world right now. I think the policy of the war - it mission, planning, etc - is to blame. The US military have been put in an impossible situation: nation building while being targeted. It is a very tragic situation which is what I was trying to express with the film.

As for shooting innocent people, many have been. I was almost nearly shot at check points.

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Greenwich, Conn.: It has been almost two years since you made this wonderful film I first saw it at the BERLINALE in February. As the violence in Baghdad has escalated in the past year, I have worried about Dr. Riyadh and his family. How are they doing now? Do you keep in touch with them.

Laura Poitras: I talked with Dr. Riyadh yesterday before the broadcast. The situation in Baghdad is unbearable. Here is part of what he said:

"There is no safe place in Baghdad. We are losing our country.

Before we lived and worked together, but now we are losing trust in each other. I don't know why I hate my brother and my brother hates me. The people themselves have changed.

Iraq is now a victim. Anyone who wants to fight the U.S. will do it on our soil. You have security in the U.S., but here there is only killing."

There is more information & update on the POV web site:

http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2006/mycountry//

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Villa Park, Calif.: What has happened to the young man who was kidnapped? What has happened to the father of the kidnapped young man? Great film. I felt like I was there. I can understand the plight of the people of Iraq better at this point. I liked the aunt who was swatting flies. I swat flies. I felt connected to her plight of everyday living.

Laura Poitras: Yarir was released. His family has left the country. Mustafa, also a nephew of Dr. R . was assassinated after I left the country.

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Toronto, Ontario, Canada: While my heart is touched by the daily courage displayed by Dr. Riyadh and his family, my soul-searched question is, will their lives be better once the occupying forces leave? Is there enough stability coming forward from the average citizens, to stop the daily rounds of bombing by the militants? Is the "civil war" inevitable or is there a will to unify the country, despite their various beliefs?

Laura Poitras: I believe the U.S. has an obligation to do anything in its power to help stablize Iraq. The war and occupation have destroyed the state. However, I don't believe continued military occupation will bring stability. We need other solutions. The money we are spending could be used in different ways, eg, to help fund an international peacekeeping force, etc.

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Chicago, Ill.: Were Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, more heterogeneous before the invasion? I know Saddam gave the Sunni's preferential treatment while treating Shia like second class or worse. My question is, in the Saddam totally controlled world, was it easier for Shia and Sunni to mingle in everyday life without violence while the occupation accentuated that rift from the outset, gving the control immediately to the Shia?

Laura Poitras: The Sunnis were the ruling class, Kurds and Shia were oppressed in many ways. However, there wasn't the kind of violence we see today. Many family there are mixed Sunni and Shia. I think to understand the current situation, we need to imagine what this country would be like after 3 years of no functioning central government, services, etc.

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New York, N.Y.: I only saw part of the film last night, but what I did say was really amazing. I wanted to know: how did you get such amazing access to the streets of Baghdad? And to the meetings among the Americans who were monitoring the elections? I didn't think anyone who wanted to could just go to Iraq...could you speak a bit to the logistics of how you ended up there and went about shooting the film day to day?

Laura Poitras: I built the access piece by piece. I went to Iraq with the permission to film the US military's "nation building" efforts. I met Dr. R. at Abu Ghraib. He invited me to film in his clinic. Very few western journalist have had this kind of intimate access. I was allowed because of the courage of Dr. R.

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Baltimore, Md.: Dear Laura .... as an Iraqi woman I would like to thank you for risking your life to make a film about my country....a country that doesnt exsist any more .... exactly what Dr. Riyadh's wife was saying....A freind called me and told me that the film is being aired on PBS ... I loved watching it and understanding what they were saying which has more depth in it than translation would bring to a viewer ... the women wanted to leave the country men want to stay THIS WAS ALWAYS THE CASE....what voting....what elections??? It is not an overnight process it is a learning process to have choices and to be able and allowed to choose....my father's generation had a better chance than my generation, my child wouldnt have any futur if I have stayed in Iraq, Iraq is free falling doesn't seem to have hit any rock bottom yet...so sad.

Thank you again for your courage.... I loved it.

Laura Poitras: Thank you so much for watching. I spoke with Dr. R. yesterday and he said this:

"There is no safe place in Baghdad. We are losing our country.

Before we lived and worked together, but now we are losing trust in each other. I don't know why I hate my brother and my brother hates me. The people themselves have changed.

Iraq is now a victim. Anyone who wants to fight the U.S. will do it on our soil. You have security in the U.S., but here there is only killing."

Also, you might like to know the Kadhum Sahir wrote the music especially for the film!

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Webster City, Iowa: How does Dr. Riyadh's clinic offer free service and medicine to the citizens? Who supports him and the clinic and where do they obtain their supplies? So many Iraqis are injured, more than Americans, how are they being cared for?

Did you find anyone there who has any sollutions to the mess in Iraq?

Your documentary is a miracle. Thank you so much for your courage and passion. Kate Q

Laura Poitras: The clinic is funded my many the support of many people. Dr. R. also has a job at a local hospital.

I think we need to reach out to the international community to bring stability to the country.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Laura, I was amazed that you spent so much time filming the Adhamiyah section of Baghdad. We really only hear stories of violence from that area. What was your impression of Adhamiyah?

Laura Poitras: It is a dangerous place for an American to work, but Dr. R. is very respected. Many people there protected me over the months.

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Superior, Wis.:

Good morning. I live in a relatively conservative area and they refused to air, "My Country, My Country" here. Is the program available on tape? Thank you.

Laura Poitras: I'm sorry it wasn't shown.

It will be on DVD. Here's the info or my distributor.

Zeitgeist Films

Phone: (212) 274-1989

Web: http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/

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Midland,Tex.: I felt like crying while watching the program. The doctor's question, "What is it all for? Oil? I wish we didn't have any." I have asked that question many times, "What is it for?" How awful the whole mess is, all the destruction, death, corruption, ruined lives. You can not make a country a democracy, they have to want it and create it themselves. Where you surprised by the relationship of the daughters and the father? They didn't seem subservient to me.

Laura Poitras: His daughters are great - they steal the show at the end. I think I probably had some stereotypes beginning the film. That is one of the great things about being a filmmaker - you get to challenge your beliefs. I should say, though, that all the Iraqis I've shown it to totally identify with the dynamics in the family.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Laura, are you aware of a recent study by Johns Hopkins which estimated that the death toll of Iraqis since the war could be over 600 thousand in contrast to the U.S. government's official number of roughly 30 thousand. Do you have sense of how accurate the U.S. number is or isn't given your first hand view of the circumstances?

Laura Poitras: I've seen the study and many have told me it is accurate. It include deaths from violence, and more indirect deaths such as lack of medical care, etc. I think everyone would know agree that 30,000 is well below the number of deaths.

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Madison, Wis.: News accounts show that people are leaving the country in large numbers, perhaps 2 million in the last 18-24 months. Does this appear to the case in your observation?

Laura Poitras: yes, anyone you can leave is leaving. which means people like doctors, professors, etc. people are filled with despair and don't see a future.

Although people want to leave, it is becoming harder and harder for Iraqis to get visas to other countries.

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Fort Thomas, Ky.: Have you found out yet why you have a score of 400 with Homeland Security? it is an outrage! The film was wondeful I am hoping to get it shown at my daughters HS - Thank you and please send our thanks to the Dr. and his family for sharing their lives with us! This is an important work.

Laura Poitras: The reason I'm on the list is classified. What I was told my a source it that there is an accusation against me. I'm in the process of filing a Freedom of Information Act request which will probably take months or years to process. It is sad and also funny - no one gave me any trouble in Baghdad, but now that I'm home I'm suddenly dangerous. Makes me a little worried about the people who make this kinds of decisions.

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Alexandria, Va.: Can do an interview with you, I work with the Middle East Broadcasting Network and it is directed to Iraq and the Arab world, what are my chances to see you , also i can present you to a friend of mine who wrote and acted nine parts of desire and presented through it Iraq's situation , i think it will be good to cooperate with her cause she really embodied the Iraqi woman sufferings in 9 personalities.

Laura Poitras: I'd love you. You can contact me through my Web site:

http://www.mycountrymycountry.com/

Thanks - L

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W. Orange, N.J.: Are Dr. Riyadh and his family still alive, well, and in Iraq? Was filming hazardous in late 2004 and early 2005? Would it be possible at all now? Does appearance in public create all kinds of hazards for both an Iraqi and a foreigner with a camera? Your film's soundtrack has mainy songs and chants with no subtitles. What are the subjects? How good is your Arabic?

Laura Poitras: They are still in Baghdad. The situation grows worse everyday.

Yes, the filming was very hazardous. While I was there many westerners were kidnapped and killed. Most of the music is the them song, Oh My Country, by Kadhum Al Sahir. He is a very famous singer/composer from Iraq. here is a link to the lyrics at:

http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2006/mycountry/index.html

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Birmingham, Ala.: I wanted to let you know that my husband and I really enjoyed your film. It was very well done, and I was thrilled to see it aired on public television. I wish everyone in America had to watch your film so they would see that Muslims are just like us with valid worries, fears, normal families, humor, and everything else human. Thank you for making such a real film.

Laura Poitras: Thank you. This is probably my biggest goal with the film. Dr. Riyadh a a heroic man. He is truly motivated by his moral beliefs.

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Birmingham, Ala.: Given what you've seen, do you think we can "win"?

Laura Poitras: I guess my real question is not whether we can "win," but how Iraq can be stablized . For me, that is the goal. I'm not sure that can happen with a US military occupation because it brings such resentment in the country and surrounding region.

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: Thank you for a non-partisan view the various people and cultures of Iraq and Baghdad. Unfortunately, since your documentary was last filmed, the circumstances and sectarian violence in Iraq has deteriorated. Nevertheless, this should be, if not already, a must see introspective documentary for all government and military officials involved in Iraqi oversight.

Laura Poitras: Thanks. The military is using it as a training tool to teach about 'cultural difference" and the perspective of Iraqis. I hope it also gets seen among policy makers in DC.

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Houston, Tex.: Laura, what do most Iraqis believe our motives were for the invasion?

Laura Poitras: Most Iraqis think we are there for the oil.

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Juno, Alaska: The prevailing wisdom from the administration is that if we leave Iraq, chaos will ensue, thus, allowing the terrorists to claim it as their own. What's your reaction to that viewpoint?

Laura Poitras: I think we need to find solutions that draw on the international community to bring stability. I don't think the US occupation, even if it did everything right, can create stability because of the mistakes we've already made and the resentment in the region to the US occupation of at Muslim country. I think we should access what is the best way to use the billions of dollars we are spending in Iraq.

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EPIC Office, Washington, D.C.: Here at my office, we have all seen your flim and loved it. Our question for you: there is a lot of talk in Washington these days about a "three state solution" for Iraq. From your experience, how strong is Iraqi nationalism or an Iraqi national identity in the city of Baghdad? How do you feel that Dr. Riyahd and parties like the Iraqi Islamic Party would react to a U.S. initiative to divide the country?

Laura Poitras: First of all, I think any decision about the future of Iraq should be made by Iraqis, not from the outside. Dr. Riyadh certainly doesn't want the country to be divided, but on his most pessimistic days, he things that might be coming.

On an overall international policy perspective, I think the division of Iraq would create enormous instability in the region.

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Washington, D.C.: First off, I was and continue to be against our involvement in Iraq. That said, I think you are missing the root cause of the problem. Iraq is just like the former Yugoslavia. Iron fisted dictators prevented the inevitable. I had a Israelie military officer comment to me before the invasion, that we could not succeed in Iraq, because we were not tough enough. He meant that in that part of the world, the only thing they know is force. If we were to be successful we would have to behave like Saddam, and kill five for every one. The U.S. does not fight like that and that is why the Israelie made the comment. Iraq needs to be split into three countries.

Laura Poitras: I think the situation is different because you have sectarian violence occurring during an occupation. The goal of many of terrorists to came to Iraq after the invasion was to flame this kind of violence, so I don't think it can be separated from the US presence there. They are tied together.

I don't believe that Iraqis "only know force," but I do believe that democracy or any other kind of government can't be imposed from the outside. If it is, it will never be perceived as legitimate.

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Salinas, Calif.: Laura, thank you for your powerful documentary. Because of Dr. R's status with the CIA, is there any concern that you and any of your crew could be considered giving "material assistance to unlawful enemy combatants" according to our recently passed Military Commissions law and labeled an UEC yourself?

Laura Poitras: I was working alone in Iraq and I am now on a watch-list and get stopped at airports. Under the very broad definition of the Military Commissions, anyone can be accused of being an UEC.

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Lancaster, Va.: Do you think that if the U.S. or an international peacekeeping force could just begin to restore basic infrastructure in Baghdad like 24/7 electricity that it would help lessen the everyday stress on the population and therefore help calm some of the anger that comes with constant stress?

Thank you for having the courage to make this film. It provides vital information to Americans and the international community if we are going to be able to restore Iraq.

Laura Poitras: I think one of the biggest mistake early on in the war it that we did not use the resources inside the country to help rebuild it. I think any solution needs to come from Iraqis. But yes, the lack of infrastructure and basic services leads to continuing violence.

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Nashua, N.H.: First I want to say THANK YOU for produsing this great film. It did touch our hearts and we were crying all the time when we were watching it. My question is: how can we get a copy of this film?

God bless you.

Laura Poitras: thanks. we are working on the DVD which will have an extended scene of Dr. Riyadh's inspection of Abu Ghraib.

To contact my distributor:

Zeitgeist Films

Phone: (212) 274-1989

Web: http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/

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Laura Poitras: Thank you all for watching and your questions.

I need to getting on a train to show the film in MA. You can find out more at the PBS web site:

http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2006/mycountry/index.html

My best,

Laura

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