– review – review

The Blood Of My Brother (2005)

It seems only yesterday that I told two of my Palestinian friends, Ramiz and Joe, that our making war on Iraq again would open Pandora’s box, and unleash untold horrors. That was over three years ago, and the horrors unleashed have given horror new meanings. Iraq now — just weeks before the midterm elections — is an unblinking litany of death, destruction, and struggle. It’s easy to be ‘over’ what’s going on there, like getting calls from a friend who always has the same bad news. Andrew Berends’ harrowing new cinema verite ‘documentary’ feature, ‘The Blood Of My Brother,’ was made in Baghdad in what now looks like the nascent days of the Iraqi ‘insurgency’ — a six month period beginning in April 2004 when he got there looking for a story behind the news stories — and one with no end in sight. It’s Pandora’s box alright, but even more like Sisyphus pushing his huge rock forward as it keeps relentlessly falling back on him. Berends’ film is no prissy pc attack on ‘neo-con’ hubris, but a startling in-your-face look at the human cost of just surviving in ‘post Sadaam ‘ Iraq. No fake blood, no tanks pumped up by music, no slick ‘war’ footage which looks like it was done on a very closed set. There’s blood — lots of it — but what sticks in your mind and heart are the faces he shoots, wonderful expressive faces, and that’s where he finds his story . This is easily one of the most intense films I’ve ever seen — Berends never lets us off the hook — and yet it’s hypnotic as Michael Mann’s big screen ‘Miami Vice’. You want to look away, but can’t.

Berends’ principal characters have no place to hide. The family he follows lives in Baghdad’s sprawling and very poor Sadr City. Ibrahim’s older photographer brother, Ra’ad, is killed by American troops while guarding one of Iraq’s most sacred shrines 16th century Al – Kadhimiya mosque — on the eve of opening his own shop. Ra’ad’s friends pick his dead body up from the street — he’s lying next to the curb — put it in a car, and the picture’s off and running, with spectacular footage shot by Ra’ad’s friends of his body being carried by a chanting crowd of 7000 to the mosque. ‘May Allah relieve us of this sadness and this ugly occupation ‘ shouts Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr’s assistant. Ra’ad has become a martyr for the cause, and Ibrahim is thrust into a part he never dreamed he’d have to take — running his brother’s business, and caring for his mother, and two sisters. Ibrahim, sobbing, pulls his brother Ali, to him, his mother can’t bear it, nor can his sister Bayda. Berends’ camera watches — no cuts, no zooms — it’s just raw human emotion. It’s painful because it’s true — no MTV Real World airhead commentary — and these people are in extremis and not just pooh-poohing their roommates’bad habits or how they want to get laid, and why can’t they — ‘ and American people sleep comfortably ‘ as Ibrahim says much later on.

Berends also goes with American occupation soldiers on a raid on a sleeping Iraqi family in dead of night; they lead the men of the house, blindfolded, into the blackness, with no lawyer, forget military tribunals, in sight. Even more startling is a pitched in the alleys’ face-off between Sadr’s Mehdi Army guerillas and a helicopter, with the boom-thud-boom of a tank,coming and going from nowhere,like a lumbering insect. And, forty days after Ra’ad’s death, Berends goes with the black ‘abaya’ clad women on their visit to his martyr’s grave — white and dusty beige, with lime green — an Islamic symbol for paradise — around the cemetery door. Their laments rend the air, pierce the heart. And, if that weren’t enough, Berends goes to see a family torn apart by death — a beautiful little girl crying uncontrollably– her mother died next to her — as a woman, probably, her grandma, cradling an infant asks , ‘ What have these children done? Why do they deserve this ? ‘

These are metaphysical questions, and being metaphysical ones, they have no firm, unambiguous answers. Berends’ film is a courageous act of witnessing, and whether consciously or not, it ends up asking these. His director’s commentary on the DVD mentions ‘ the unconscious ‘ at one point, and that’s I suppose what you’d expect an elaborately educated Westerner to say — it’s all a great, dark unknowable thing. Berends told me on the phone that ‘it’s a struggle to get people willing to watch films like these.’ One hopes that the stunning looking and sounding — the score is by moving-up-in-the-ranks Brit composer Stephen Barton, with santur ( hammered dulcimer ) and vocal contributions by the young Iraqi- American Amir Al Saffar — DVD, with extras, will be seen more widely than the film was in its limited theatrical showings. Americans have never been too keen on reality — we wouldn’t be in the domestic-international mess we’re in if they were — and they’re generally sheep following passive. Berends seems wonderfully atypical of his generation — he was born in Manhattan in 1975 — which makes me feel guardedly hopeful for him and the future. ‘The Blood Of My Brother’ strikes me as the fruit of a deeply personal voyage to know. And perhaps it’s a baby step in a fiercely dark time. The Qur’an 22: 46 puts it this way — ‘It is not people’s eyes that are blind, but their hearts within their breasts. ‘

Michael McDonagh


Michael McDonagh is a San Francisco-based poet, playwright, filmmaker, and writer on the arts. His poems have appeared in many places including Stanford's poetry mag "Mantis," and he reads quite frequently at San Francisco's "Sacred Grounds Cafe." Seven of his poems have been set to music--six, by Lisa Scola performed by her on piano, with soprano Diane Landau, at San Francisco's "Goat Hall" in 2001. Another poem--"night and trees," set by the late composer Gerhard Samuel was performed by the members of the and can be heard on its site. His work for the theatre includes "touch and go--for three voices," which "Zack's Common Cultural Practice" performed at San Francisco's "Venue 9" in 1998, and "Sight Unseen," a theatre piece for one performer, which Sophia Holman -- now world premiered at New York's in 2011. McDonagh directed a film version with German actor Hermann Eppert in Berlin in 2013, which can be seen online. He performed a live version with pianist Ric Louchard playing Satie's "4th Gnossienne"--followed by a sequence of his poems, and a showing of Eppert's version at the "Berkeley Arts Festival" in 2014. His collaborations with artists of other disciplines includes two poem-picture books with San Francisco-based painter"Before I Forget" and "once--they're planning a third,"--and the film "Alex North Viva Zapata! 2010," realized with the videographers Donovan Bauer, Peter Hibdon, and Joe Luis Garcia Nava, which Alejandro Escuer's under conductor Rodrigo Macias played live in Pueblo, Mexico in 2010. His writing on the literary, visual, and musical arts have appeared in many places including the "The San Francisco Chronicle," "The San Francisco Review of Books," "The Los Angeles Times," "The Advocate," "Stagebill," and "Keyboard." He has also written catalogs for two arts shows--Cal State Hayward's "Contemporary Romanticism," and Matt Phillips' eightieth birthday show at He has contributed to, and and regularly contributes to,,,, and served as president of the Bay Area's Duke Ellington Society for many years. Currently he is working on a sequence of poems, and "Anna and Vronsky,"--after Tolstoy--and meditates writing a fractured piece on love called "The Scene of the Crime."