“If you push me I’ll break your arm,” says journalist Sam Kiley to a hostile Iraqi bureaucrat at Tuwaitha, an alleged Iraqi weapons site. The repartee is typical of the combative tone in Truth and Lies in Baghdad, a well-made, timely and eye-opening PBS Frontline documentary on the state of the truth—if such a thing exists—in the propaganda war in Iraq.
It is interesting how most repressive governments adoptstrikingly similar approaches toward journalists, treating them like unwanted guests. Kiley has to wait in Jordan for several weeks before he gets an Iraqi visa. Once in Iraq, his Arab translator turns to out to be vestigial; he is asked to instead use the “minder” (a guide provided by the Iraqi government) as his exclusive interpreter. True to the best Le Carre tradition, the guide is also a spy, diligently reporting on the reporters.
While the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the U.N. embargo-related malnutrition of Iraqi children are two broad propaganda-heavy subjects that concern Kiley, he is also aggressively pursuing reports on official barbarism in Iraq. He has heard that Saddam’s government beheads women—oftenin crowded public places—as part of an Islamic fanaticism-tinged repression. Some of these women are believed to be prostitutes, while some others, witnesses claim, are doctors, nurses and teachers.
If true, the oppression of these unfortunate women is evenly matched by accounts of the breathtaking brutality of their executions. The killings are usually reported to have taken place in a market or other public places to ensure maximum visibility, and some of the witnesses talk causally of the tossing of human heads into garbage bins.
Kiley is an energetic reporter, and his compassion for the victims shines through his more dominant sense of outrage against the Saddam government. When he visits Mr. Hassan Jummaa, a former President of Baghdad University’s student union, Jummaa shows Kiley torture marks on his back. Kiley asks if it was a cutthroat razor, and then says “I am sorry to ask you.”
Kiley also visits alleged weapons sites on press tours arranged by the Iraqi government. The whole idea strains credulity; even if the tours are meant to accord a genuine opportunity for inspection, how are journalists expected to identify weapons of mass destruction? Kiley is aware of the absurdity and futility of the press expedition and upon hearing one Iraqi official state that the site did not contain any uranium oxide (known as yellow cake), he asks jokingly, “What does yellow cake look like? I wouldn’t know the difference between yellow cake and marzipan.”
But soon, Kiley returns to his topic of interest: the beheadings. He visits several officials who hotly deny any truth in the rumors. But when he visits Basra, another Iraqi city, his suspicions are confirmed by an ordinary Iraqi family.
The reporting is brisk and incisive. Kiley talks to the camera constantly, relating his every thought and thus connecting immediately with the viewer. He is also enterprising; when informed about medicinal shortages, he takes the camera into pharmaceutical shops to verify the facts. Truth and Lies in Baghdad is a potent reminder that Iraq remains a dangerous and unstable country headed by a dictator who is undiscriminating in his brutality to Iraq’s ill-fated citizens.
A second, shorter segment of this Frontline, titled Columbia’s Oil Fix, presents a grim picture of the Columbian civil war and the internecine battle over American owned oil pipelines. The battle has three combatants: the Columbian army, left-wing guerillas and right-wing paramilitary groups. The Columbian army is trying to protect an eight-hundred mile long oil pipeline that is vital to the national economy. The oil is partly owned by Occidental Petroleum, a U.S. company. The Army has an unenviable task, for they are up against an elusive group of guerillas who fervently believe the Columbian economy should not succumb to foreign multinationals. The thick rainforest through which the pipeline meanders serves as a natural camouflage for the guerillas.
Reporter Saira Shah jumps into the heat of the battle right away. As she is interviewing a Columbian Army officer, the proceedings are cut short by reports that a portion of the oil pipeline has been blown up by guerillas. The viewer sees firsthand the potency of the resulting destruction—both to the pipeline and to the surrounding environment. Until this time, Columbia’s Oil Fix has been a straightforward story about oil, officials, and opposition. But Shah also discovers another group in a Columbian town: the paramilitary. Originally organized by wealthy landowners to provide security for themselves and their properties, the paramilitary is now a neo-fascist group, reportedly intent on “social cleansing”, i.e. ridding the society of anyone who dissents including homosexuals and prostitutes. The paramilitary neutralizes the influence of the guerillarebels, but has, in the process, morphed into a treacherous presence.
The on-the-field reporting in Truth and Lies in Baghdad and Columbia’s Oil Fix suggests why cinema verite is among the most visually potent styles of documentary filmmaking. Upon reaching a blown-up pipeline, Saira Shah asks the military officers present if they have cleared the area around the pipeline of mines. She does not receive an answer, but decides to proceed anyway. Such scenesexpose the audience to a sense of violence and fear that no Hollywood movie or Michael Moore film can replicate. Both Truth and Lies in Baghdad and Columbia’s Oil Fix are thoughtful and absorbing. Exposure to the unvarnished realities of violent life in unstable regimes is combined with helpful commentary, seamless editing, unconventional but topical subjects (beheadings in Iraq and neo-fascist groups in Columbia) and above all, a sense of discovery, even if the epiphanies are mostly of the unpleasant kind.
– Nigam Nuggehalli