While this film provides a different point of view than what we usually get from the Western media, it’s still a highly selective point of view.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq, which began the Iraq War (aka “Operation Iraqi Freedom”), received a fair amount of coverage in the American press, but primarily from a Western and military point of view. Very little attention was paid to the experiences of the Iraqi people before or after the invasion, which is actually pretty typical of press coverage of wars in general—far from being unbiased, it takes sides as absolutely as the most rapid football fan.
Homeland: Iraq Year Zero, by Iraqi-French director Abbas Fahdel (he also shot, edited, and produced this film), offers a useful corrective to the usual view of that war (and of Iraq) offered up by the Western media. It’s a monumental film, running over five hours, that paradoxically succeeds by focusing on the small and personal. It often feels like a collage of really well done home movies featuring ordinary Iraqis, many of whom are friends or relatives of the filmmaker, and as such offers a glimpse of their lives that you’ll never see on the six-o-clock news. Homeland also offers a view of what it’s like to be a civilian in a country while a war is being fought there, something most Americans will never experience (our experience of war being primarily that of sending troops to fight somewhere else, as opposed to having our own homes bombed or being shot at by occupying troops who thought we looked suspicious).
The first section, “Before the Fall,” begins in Baghdad, in February 2002, and ends on March 20, 2003, the latter date marking the beginning of the Iraq War. This section is mostly concerned with documenting ordinary life in Baghdad: families drinking tea together while watching television (the broadcast content includes both Iraqi news and propaganda, and Western cartoons), mothers preparing food, children playing, a young couple getting married, students talking about their exams. There’s also a lot of talk about the war people believe is coming and of past wars, and adults take preparations like sinking a well in their courtyard and stocking up on food that will keep. The great contribution of this section of the film is to humanize ordinary Iraqis, after which it’s impossible to view them as some faceless enemy.
The second section, “After the Battle,” begins in April 2003, two weeks after the invasion, and ends with the death of one of the individuals you have come to know and like. Much of this section is taken up with the filmmaker touring Baghdad in his car, recording the damage caused by the bombs. People talk about how the invasion has changed their lives, and include not only the obvious consequences (buildings being leveled, food shortages) but also the lawlessness that has taken over the city (one woman remarks that she can no longer go out by herself, for fear of being kidnapped). Despite these hardships, most people are carrying on—students take exams, shopkeepers stay open if they can, and the birth of a baby is still a joyous occasion.
Even more so than in the first section, most of those who appear on camera in the second section are male, and this is not directly addressed by the filmmaker. That points to one important fact: While this film provides a different point of view than what we usually get from the Western media, it’s still a highly selective point of view. The subjects featured in it are also not a cross section of Iraqi society: most are neither rich nor poor, but more what we would consider middle class. They have pleasant homes and enough to eat (in both cases, at least prior to the war), and rich networks of friends and family that help sustain them through difficult times. | Sarah Boslaugh
Homeland: Iraq Year Zero is distributed as a 2-disc DVD set by Kino Lorber. Extras include an illustrated booklet containing the essay “Lessons of Darkness” by Robert Greene, a conversation with Abbas Fahdel from the New York Film Festival (30 min.), and the film’s trailer.