“The outcome of democracy!”
It’s amazing how much we take democracy for granted having been born and raised within it for centuries. Only when we look at a nation struggling to adopt the practice can we understand how difficult and ultimately dangerous it can be. We laugh at reports saying candidates buy votes and roll our eyes when new legislation is drawn to specifically target certain demographics by making it harder for their vote to count. We laugh because we’re free to laugh. We’re also free to go to the voting booth and cast a ballot for someone who doesn’t partake in those practices. When you look at Iraq in 2004 during the lead-up to its first democratic election on January 30th, 2005, however, that “freedom” isn’t yet more than a word.
How could it be with so many moving pieces not yet fully able to grasp the intricacies of what democracy means? Some like the Kurds loved the idea because they loved America for ridding them of Saddam Hussein’s terror. Some like the Shias were game because they had numbers to be victorious and have their voices heard. But when you look at the Sunnis you can’t help but see them as fish out of water. So entrenched in Islam and religion, democracy’s dismissed as secularism. It doesn’t help that their cities began to get bombed more heavily as violence rose and death tolls mounted. Already a minority in the country, their numbers dwindled and fear set in to keep those still alive far from the polls.
Documentarian Laura Poitras‘ Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country seeks to expose this tense period of time on the ground alongside those affected by the outcome. She focuses on Sunni physician Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh as a sound mind caught in between his own beliefs and those of his Iraqi Islamic Party. He understands democracy and knows that it can only work for the Sunni people if they are elected to have their voice heard. He knows this to be even truer after the violence in Fallujah and the bombings in Baghdad. This is why he’s running for the assembly and asking his patients to attend their polling places to look at the ballot and see that there are names like his to vote for. It’s not all outsiders.
Riyadh is in the minority of minorities, though. He sees his party winning seats as the way to overthrow the occupation and puppet government he believes is in control. They do not. To the Sunnis the simple act of voting legitimizes everything that’s happening. They want elections to be suspended until the violence stops and they feel safe walking the streets without being shot for what they’re wearing. So they will not vote. And they have a point. A stand must be taken to end their suffering, but that’s a bold way of doing it considering it insures their affairs will be ruled by non-Sunnis. Is there a correct answer? No. The only definitive coming out of the whole situation is their having the freedom to abstain.
Poitras spent eight months on her own in Iraq capturing the footage that she then quickly edited together for a limited theatrical run another eight months after those votes were cast. The endeavor landed her on the Department of Homeland Security’s watch list, beginning a string of incidents where she was detained by the government for questioning. If you ask her she’d surely say it was all worth it. Not only do we now have personal conversations and debates within the Sunni community, we also have a look behind the curtain at just how chaotic the entire election was from every position. We’re talking America’s military presence, private Australian security teams securing voter registration and ballots, and citizens drumming up the strength to literally ink themselves as voters.
I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the Ba’ath Party was kidnapping people to acquire ransom for their resistance. And I don’t mean in passing or in the background—this happens to one of Riyadh’s relatives. To think so much tragedy can afflict one man’s family will make you shudder at the scope of exactly what happened. Multiply his hardships by the population of Iraq and you’ll come up with an insane number of crimes, oppression, and coercion. Was it better than being forced to cast a ballot with Saddam’s name and no one else’s? Yes. But was it as good as it could have been? Was it rushed? Was it mishandled? Maybe. Who’s to say it wouldn’t have six months later, though? A year later?
Poitras certainly isn’t answering that question because it’s a hypothetical. What she achieves with My Country, My Country isn’t to explain what went wrong or what went right, it’s merely to show the world what happened beyond George W. Bush declaring the elections a resounding success. When all was said and done, 58% of Iraq voted. I don’t know if that’s a good percentage or not on paper when compared with other nation’s first democratic elections, but when you see it in the context of so much death and marginalization it’s huge. In America not voting means you can’t complain when the President does something you don’t like. In 2005 Iraq voting meant risking your life. That’s a vast difference we cannot forget through ignorance.
courtesy of Zeitgeist Films