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US-Based Filmmakers Give Ordinary Iraqis a Chance to Document Their Lives

A new video documentary about life in Iraq opened recently in selected theaters across the United States. For Voices of Iraq, three Los Angeles-based filmmakers sent 150 hand-held video cameras into the war-torn country to give Iraqi citizens a chance to talk about their experiences before and after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The result was 450 hours of raw video edited into an 80-minute film. While some critics say the documentary was compiled to strongly support the war, most agree that it provides an unprecedented and compelling look into the everyday lives of the Iraqi people.

In Voices of Iraq, viewers can, in one moment, see images of war: bombs exploding, cars burning, and people running for cover. Then, in the next, they might see a group of teenagers in a kind of line dance, a child riding his bicycle, or a smiling woman in a headscarf being interviewed by her child about the meaning of democracy. Every image in the film was recorded without a director or crew, something filmmaker Martin Kunertz says is precisely what his team had in mind. "We came to the idea," he says, "that if you give cameras to the Iraqi people themselves, they'd be able to film things that nobody else would be able to. And certainly they'd have access to places in Iraq that no news crew would have access to."

Martin Kunertz and Eric Manes, two former filmmakers with the MTV music television network, teamed up with film producer Archie Drury, a former Marine stationed in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. It was Mr. Drury's job to personally carry the small video cameras into the country and distribute them to individuals who would put their stories on videotape and then pass the cameras on to others to do the same.

Martin Kunertz recalls that between April and September of this year, the producers received back nearly 3,000 interviews. "In lots of tapes," he says, "an Iraqi would take a camera and start walking down the street and go up to a car or a taxi driver and say, 'What do you think?' and then walk across the street into a bar and say, 'What do you think?'"

Archie Drury says the filmmakers initially worried about losing their cameras because of customs regulations, theft and people not returning them. But each of the cameras he distributed came back. "As it turned out," he says, "the Iraqi people, once they started trusting that this is really something honest and they could voice their opinions for the first time, they really wanted to be heard. And they knew to be heard they'd have to return the camera or send it to other people."

Voices of Iraq presents many different views about whether life is better or worse following the fall of Saddam Hussein. People talked about some of their immediate concerns, which included unemployment, personal safety and the emerging role of women. But the overriding message of the documentary is that, while the current occupation is difficult, it is preferable to the decades-long tyranny of the Iraqi dictator. The film's creators maintain that they never had a political agenda in mind. They say they wanted to present the citizens of Iraq as people just like everybody else, and give them an opportunity to make their voices heard for the very first time.