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JEFF JACOBY

Iraq through Iraqis' eyes

A YEAR AFTER Saddam Hussein was captured, how goes the liberation of Iraq?

If a phrase like "the liberation of Iraq" strikes you as ironic, chances are most of what you know about the situation there comes from the mainstream press. After all, a tidal wave of journalism has been portraying Iraq as a chaotic mess more or less from the moment US troops entered the country. The drumbeat of bad news is inescapable: looting, insurgency, terrorists, kidnappings. And, always, the grimly mounting toll of Iraqi and US casualties. This is liberation?

But how would Iraq appear if we saw it through not the reporting of Western journalists, but the candid testimony of Iraqis themselves? American reporters accustomed to freedom and the rule of law experience Iraq today as a place of danger and violence. Iraqis who lived under Saddam were accustomed to tyranny, cruelty, and secret police. What do they make of their country today?

Last spring, three enterprising Americans -- filmmakers Eric Manes and Martin Kunert, both former producers for MTV, and Gulf War veteran Archie Drury, a former Marine -- decided to find out. They distributed 150 digital video recorders to ordinary Iraqis and asked them to film anyone or anything they thought worthwhile -- and then pass the camera on to someone else.

From April to September, the cameras traveled from hand to hand through every region of the country. What eventually came back to the three Americans was 450 hours of raw video recorded by more than 2,000 Iraqis from all walks of life -- and not one frame of it influenced by an outside director or crew. Edited down to a taut 80 minutes, the result -- "Voices of Iraq" -- is a gripping documentary that for the first time shows Iraq as even the most skillful American journalist will never be able to show it: through the eyes and ears of Iraq's people.

"Voices of Iraq" is by turns heartbreaking, exhilarating, and inspiring. The war and its destruction is never far from the surface. One of the opening scenes is of a car bombing in Sadr City, and when a little girl is asked, "What do you want to tell the world about Iraq?" her answer is poignant: "These explosions are hurting everyone." A mother is seen weeping for her son, killed in the crossfire during a fight between US soldiers and looters. There is even footage -- supplied, Drury told NPR, by a sheik from Fallujah -- of insurgents preparing a bomb.

But bad as the war is, the horror it ended -- Saddam's 24-year reign -- was worse.

In the film, a young Kurdish mother tells her daughter, who is wielding the camcorder, how she would burn herself with cigarettes to prepare for the torture she knew was coming. A policeman recalls what it was like to arrest a member of the Ba'ath Party. "You'd be scared," he says. "You'd shake with fear." One man explains that Saddam's son Uday "used to come often to Ravad Street -- every Thursday for the market -- to choose a girl to rape."

A few brief clips are shown from a captured Fedayeen Saddam videotape: A blindfolded victim thrown to his death from a rooftop, a man's hand getting severed, someone's tongue being cut out.

It isn't hard to understand the emotions of the man who answers, when asked how he reacted to the news of Saddam's capture, "I danced like this! I kept dancing. Then I cried."

Yet for all they have been through, Iraqis come across as incredibly optimistic, hopeful, and enthusiastic. And above all, normal. In "Voices of Iraq" they film themselves flying on rides in an amusement park, dancing the night away at a graduation party, taking their kids to a playground, shopping for cellphones. A police officer mugs for the camera. Shoppers throng the streets of Suleimaniyah. A scrawny kid pumps iron with a makeshift barbell -- and gives a shout out to Arnold Schwarzenegger. ("I like your movies. You're a good actor. Can you please send me some real weights?")

Iraqis haven't had much experience with democracy, but we see the delight they take in the new opportunities Saddam's defeat is making possible. Two women celebrate the freedom to get a passport. An artist talks proudly about work for which he went to prison. A young woman says her dream is to be a lawyer. One rough-looking fellow says simply, "I wish for a government elected by the Iraqi people."

Yes, it's a liberation. And the men and women we liberated, it turns out, are people just like us. The headlines dwell on the bad news, and the bad news is certainly real. But things are looking up in Iraq, as the Iraqis themselves will be happy to tell you. All someone had to do was ask. Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com. 

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