June 12, 2005
The Liberace of Baghdad, 2004
Charming, humorous, and endearing, it is easy to see why BBC journalist Sean McAllister decided to chronicle the life of flamboyant, irrepressibly outspoken, and widely popular entertainer (and notoriously unapologetic womanizer) Samir Peter who, in his heyday, was once dubbed the Liberace of Baghdad, and who, since the Iraqi War, now bides his time playing the piano in the near empty lounge of a heavily fortified hotel housing Western workers (mostly journalists and privately contracted security forces) stationed in the region as he waits for the approval of his visa in order to immigrate to the United States and join his two daughters and estranged wife. Filmed over an eighth month period in the power vacuum of a post-Sadaam Hussein Iraq under the increasingly volatile and escalating climate of frontier lawlessness, terrrorism, armed resistance, and kidnapping of foreign workers, The Liberace of Baghdad is an insightful first-hand portrait of the conflicted and demoralizing climate of everyday life in postwar Iraq as the ideals of liberation and freedom become increasingly obscured in the psychological prison of social insecurity. However, despite Peter's unparalleled ability to provide a compelling, provocative, engaging, and intimate account of the erosive toll of occupation and insurgency on ordinary civilians, I cannot help but question the integrity of the filmmaker who, either through colossal naïvete or sheer recklessness, seemed to willingly (and deliberately) continue to put his publicly high-profile subject in harm's way in order to get "the story", even after discovering first-hand in several close-call episodes the brutality of the retaliation by insurgents on those whom they perceive to be collaborating with Westerners (most notably, a neighbor's assassination in front of her child for her employment with a Western contractor, and in Peter's U.S. immigrant daughter and her family who have returned to Iraq to visit her remaining siblings.) Beyond the filmmaker's inept camerawork (including a nausea-inducing extended sequence of repeated quick pans capturing Peter's conversation with his daughter) and tangential, egocentric diversions away from his subject (including a remarkably unoriginal interstitial shot of him filming himself in a mirror), it is this moral conduct that ultimate undermines the integrity of the film as McAllister seems to have lost sight of the fact that by possessing a British passport, he is allowed to leave at anytime (and in fact, does) while the people whom he has filmed must live with the consequences of - and risk retribution or perhaps even death for - his exploitive, self-aggrandizing exposé.