March 16, 2005
About Baghdad, 2004
In an episode near the conclusion of the film, the expatriate poet and writer Sinan Antoon, having been allowed entry into the military secured Shaheed Monument - an architecturally impressive outdoor memorial commissioned by Saddam Hussein to honor the fallen Iraqi martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War (in a macabre, self-aggrandizing gesture to commemorate the 700,000 soldiers that the despot had willfully sent to their deaths by invading Iran in 1980) - solemnly surveys the Vietnam Memorial-like list of casualties inscribed on the wall and becomes visibly upset by the sight of intermittently spaced, printed sheets of paper taped over some of the inscriptions. A subsequent terse exchange with his military escort provides a context for the nature of the affront: the placards denoting reserved parking space assignments for the troops stationed in the monument complex sacrilegiously - and ignorantly - taped over the names of the dead soldiers. The seemingly disrespectful and chagrining (if not inadvertently arrogant) display of diplomatic faux pas reflects a deeply rooted national wound that continues to haunt and demoralize the Iraqi people's psyche in post Saddam Hussein Iraq: a systematic trivialization (and erasure) of the rich cultural history of their beloved, ancestral land of ancient Mesopotamia - the cradle of civilization - in the wake of imperialist foreign intervention (first, by the British who captured Baghdad during World War I and subsequently exerted influence over the direction of the nation's governance, then subsequently, by the Americans during the invasions of Iraq in First and Second Gulf War), the reign of autocratic tyranny under Hussein (who not only appropriated - and desecrated - the country's national resources and treasures, but also perverted the meaning of historicity with his own attempts at self-immortalization by installing publicly inescapable commemorative portraits, billboards, and statues throughout the country), and the inevitable collateral destruction of war (most palpably, in the bombing of academic institutions that serve as repositories for art, cultural artifacts, and historical documents including the Academy of Fine Arts and the College of Arts buildings and library at the University Baghdad). Composed of interviews of ordinary citizens, walking tours through the war-ravaged streets, first-hand testimonies by political prisoners tortured under the Hussein regime, conversations with intellectuals, and observational commentaries by the outspoken Antoon, and assembled into a collage of visual styles that structurally evoke the colorfully (and elaborately) interwoven, vibrant hues of ancient tapestry, About Baghdad is an illuminating, impassioned, and provocative exposition on the complex issues and profound emotional conflict surrounding the American occupation of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Capturing a pervasive sense of despair, frustration, anger, resentment, and melancholia that lay beneath the tumultuous and embittering national history of usurped and foreign imposed law, inhumanity (whether through Hussein's arbitrary administration of torture or internationally imposed sanctions that have crippled the country's health care system), and unrequited desire for self-governance, the film serves as a thoughtful, sincere, and articulate human plea for tolerance, respect, cultural preservation, and self-determination.