March 22, 2006 -- “Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories” is an independent non-journalistic documentary movie about the situation in Iraq in late 2003 and early 2004. Mike Shiley made this film pretty much on his own by faking his own press credentials and talking his way into Iraq. He was looking for the kinds of stories you don't see on television news shows, and he found some. The result is a bit of a travelogue, some terse, cautious statements by the natives, some statements from people serving in the U.S. armed forces and some graphic images of death, pain and suffering. All of this is kind of jumbled together into the rough outline of a story about Iraq. However, this is not an objective, impartial story of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It has a definite point of view and it does promote an anti-war agenda.
Shiley makes the argument in the film that because he is not a journalist tied to a big news organization (he was loosely affiliated with Portland, Ore. television station KATU) he was able to bring the viewers of his movie unfiltered news. The implication is that viewers expect a certain amount of spin from news organizations that have to make some compromises in order retain access to news sources in war zones that are controlled by military and government leaders. Big news organizations also have to worry about alienating some of their viewers and readers if their news stories appear to be slanted. Shiley evidently didn't have those kinds of restrictions. On the other hand, he also lacks the training and experience to cover news stories in a balanced way, and to protect his sources from reprisals.
Shiley got permission from KATU to act as the station's correspondent to cover some Oregon national guard units in Iraq. He bought a bulletproof vest, forged press credentials and bought a white-knuckle, high-speed car ride across the border from Amman, Jordan into Iraq. In Baghdad, he hired an interpreter and set out to document his journey around Iraq. Shiley traveled in the Sunni Triangle, the city of Baghdad, the northern Kurdish region and some southern areas of Iraq. Among the places he visits in the film, a hospital for land mine victims, a sort of flea market where you can buy a rocket-propelled grenade launcher for $25 and lots of other military weapon bargains. He also visits a market where pornographic movies are sold. Pornography was outlawed before the war. Now it is a thriving industry. He also visits a Chaldean Christian Church in Baghdad for Christmas services.
In the Kurdish region in the north of Iraq, Shiley finds the most support for the war. One woman loudly exclaims she would die for Bush, and maybe for Tony Blair, too. In other parts of the country, the United States military has worn out its welcome. While embedded with a military unit Shiley learns to fire an Abrams tank weapon so that he can ride in the forward part of the tank to get better pictures. He gets infrared images of tanks blasting away at night in the middle of a village in an attempt to scare insurgents. Shiley wonders if this kind of behavior won't irritate the villagers. No wonder more than 80 percent of Iraqis want the occupation forces to leave. At a U.S. military base, an officer comments on the enormous waste of food and other valuables thrown away in the base dump. Starving villagers could be shot for trying to break into the dump. The officer is later drummed out of the military for his observations, Shiley notes in the film. By the way, there are ways an experienced journalist can document military waste without getting his source fired. This is just one cost among many that others must bear for the missteps of amateur journalists. Shiley also interviews some Iraqi army recruits and notes the shabby uniforms, poor grade of weapons and low pay (half what they were paid by Saddam Hussein) that plague the army.
These are brief glimpses of a small part of Iraq. For those who have not seen the superior Iraq war documentary Gunner Palace, this film gives you a taste of what it is like fighting with U.S. forces in Iraq these days. With a little more research, “Inside Iraq” could have been a lot more informative. For instance, the Christians in Iraq are under attack and are being rapidly driven out of the country by Islamic extremists. Under the Hussein regime, Christians were more protected. The film barely touches upon the plight of the Christians, who have lived in Iraq since the time of Christ. They include Chaldean Assyrians, the independent Assyrian Church as well as Armenian and Syrian Catholics. Although the Christians numbered only about one million before the war, since the 2003 war, an estimated 20 percent of all refugees fleeing Iraq are Christians. The film also devotes some time to the land mine issue, but fails to mention where all these land mines came from. U.S. forces used land mines in the first Gulf War. Did they lay more land mines in the current war? This question is neither asked nor answered in the film.
In addition to the mines made by Iraq, land mines now in Iraqi soil were manufactured in England, France, Italy, Belgium, China, Jordan, the Soviet Union and the U.S. The UN Mine Action Program (MAP), cleared mines from over 9.7 million square meters of Iraqi land. It was funded by the oil for food program. Privately-funded mine removal programs, like the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) remain active, but a survey by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation found that about 20 percent of Iraqi villages are contaminated by mines and other explosive munitions. The U.S. is one of the few large industrialized nations which has not joined the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. Is the U.S. doing anything to clear up the land mine problem in Iraq? This would be useful information to know.
As journalism, this documentary is woefully lacking. However, it does cover some ground that is not covered in most newscasts. It should also be noted that Shiley is a very brave man. He traveled over a lot of Iraq with little or no protection. He could have easily been kidnapped or murdered. He was lucky to have survived. Other journalists have not been so lucky. Nearly 100 journalists, photographers and their assistants have given their lives trying to bring you news from Iraq since the war began in 2003. This movie was shot with a digital video camera. For the most part, the images are clear and sharp. There are also a number of still images, some of them carry an emotional punch. Some of the images you see in this film are the kind not shown on prime time news broadcasts simply because they are too graphic, like close-up images of emergency surgery, and fresh, bloody body parts from a bomb attack. I saw this film on DVD. The only extra feature on it is a slide show of remarkable images, accompanied by music.
How much you learn from this film depends on how much you knew going into it. I'm a news junkie, so I already knew most of this from other sources. If you get all your news from the Fox network or CBN, this film will be a revelation. It was the little things I found interesting, like the porn movie theaters, the beauty of the inside of an Iraq mosque, the wild dash across the desert from Jordan to Baghdad, with an emergency stop for cigarettes in the very dangerous city of Falluja, the guns for sale cheap on the black market, the street life, the markets, the food, the children and sex among U.S. soldiers. It is a kind of slice of life in Iraq. This film rates a C+.
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