Frustrated with the mainstream media's coverage of the Iraq war and armed only with a digital video camera, a homemade press pass and a contact number, amateur filmmaker Mike Shiley began a two-month journey in December 2003 that resulted in his film Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories.
Forthcoming about his lack of journalism and filmmaking credentials, and with no apparent political agenda (though perhaps it could be argued that he is taking a "humanitarian" angle), Shiley captures uniquely personal footage that details the reality of life on the ground in occupied Iraq. The film owes as much to travelogue as documentary, and its decided lack of slickness is part of what makes it so affecting.
Traveling without the barrier of security that surrounds most Western journalists, Shiley shows us a Baghdad that has been relieved of a dictator but is also without basic necessities like water, electricity, gas and heating oil. At the Baghdad Technology College, classes in computer science continue, extraordinarily enough, without the aid of actual computers. (An instructor explains that they were looted after the city was liberated.) Shiley also shows us that liberation has spawned open-air markets for pornography from the West and a burgeoning assault-weapons trade.
Never shying away from the bleak ironies and complexities of war, Shiley shows American aid workers tending to sick and wounded Iraqis and Kurdish people who are ardent supporters of President Bush. He interviews Iraqi weapons experts who are paid $10 a day to remove landmines and visits a hospital for landmine victims where crayon drawings of tanks and bombs by young victims line the walls of the art room. The footage inside the hospital includes some of the film's most heartrending images, with one young victim explaining that he detonated a landmine while going out to get water.
In an interview published on his Web site (www.shidogfilms.com), Shiley says that after Sept. 11 he considered joining the military, and in the film he attempts to live the life of a soldier. He's certified to operate the biggest gun on the Abrams tank so that he can ride along on missions such as "Operation Harass and Intimidate," a nighttime tactic that involves firing a barrage of weapons down the middle of a village suspected to contain insurgents. Shiley shows soldiers who have not been taught even basic Arabic phrases that would enable them to communicate with Iraqi civilians, as well as displays of American wastefulness like the base dump where U.S. troops have discarded tons of unopened groceries and functioning electronics before leaving for home. But he also follows a soldier who employs Iraqi villagers to clear the cane around the base, supplying them much-needed livelihood.
Some of the film's most affecting moments are also the most mundane. Shots of Iraqis at markets and magazine stands, of street-food vendors, of soldiers wearing antlers and eating candy canes on Christmas Eve remind us of our commonalities and are all the more poignant when we realize that they are taking place amid bombed-out buildings and an all but nonexistent infrastructure. An evenhanded, compassionate observer, Shiley has made a war documentary of exceptional humanity.
Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories screens at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday-Sunday, Dec. 2-4. Shiley will introduce the film and answer questions at every show.