There are a plethora of documentaries about the American-led war in Iraq that have won awards and acclaim. Even so very few Americans end up watching any of these films as we continue to evade our collective responsibility for the destruction of the world around us. I want to write about the perhaps under-acclaimed documentary project "Our Feelings Took the Pictures: Open Shutters Iraq" (2008) precisely because it so beautifully communicates the lives of extraordinary women who have suffered incredible injustices as the result of American policies. These are the lives that are so often silenced by mainstream media reports of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
For me one of the grossest injustices in our contemporary world is that Americans have absolutely no sense of what our wars are doing to millions of people. Yes a few thousand Americans were attacked in minute areas of New York City and Washington D.C. on one particular day and this created much suffering, but it is totally incomparable to the attacks on tens of millions of people across entire countries over many years. Americans cannot imagine the humiliation of living under foreign occupation. We have no idea what it would be like to say goodbye to our children in the morning knowing that there is a good possibility that they may never return home. As the film reveals, during the battle of Fallujah many Iraqis were being killed and yet it was too unsafe for families to leave the house so there was nowhere else to bury the dead except for in the garden. This film symbolizes our inability to comprehend because of our vastly different living histories, and yet also helps to bridge the resulting divide.
Open Shutters is a series of workshops initiated by British photojournalist Eugenie Dolberg that embraces a methodology to help create a more participatory kind of journalism. The Iraq project now includes a film, book and exhibition. Open Shutters Iraq focuses on using the medium of photography to document the changing world of Iraq during probably the worst episode of sectarian violence as a result of the American-led war, helping Iraqis to find expression for their pain, suffering, hope and love. The director of the film, Maysoon Pachachi, is a British-Iraqi filmmaker who returns to the region to document Dolberg teaching a group of Iraqi women from five different cities how to express themselves through innovative but perfectly sensible artistic techniques, such as asking the women to create life maps, as well as teaching them how to use a camera. The women draw, write and paste pictures of their life histories, which not only helps them to find their inner selves to express in photographs, but also helps them to verbally communicate these selves to others, building intense bonds between the women.
Dolberg starts by explaining how she never felt comfortable growing up in British society. She felt so isolated and alone that she eventually ran away from home. However her story seems almost mundane in comparison with the stories of the women who have suffered hundreds of lives worth of injustice, death and violence. One woman was forced to deliver her own baby who died because the umbilical chord was wrapped around the baby's throat. Another woman was kidnapped for ransom and subsequently suffered from a reputation as a tainted woman. Several of the women had received death threats. Fathers, husbands, brothers and sons were arrested or killed. Probably the most shocking of all was hearing young children talk about kidnapping, explosions and death as if such things were totally normal for children to experience. But the fear in their eyes betrayed them.
Despite all of the pain and suffering in their lives, the women still speak about families and love. Each embodies human creativity, tolerance and kindness, which comes through in their photographs. They open their arms to American volunteers for the project. They completely refute ignorant views about oppressed Arab women and sectarianism in Iraq. At one point in the film, right around the execution of Saddam Hussein, one of the women says that she is feeling so overwhelmed by events that she stays alone in her room because she is afraid to say anything that may hurt the others. Another responds that she need not worry about saying anything because this is a war against militias and Iraqis are one people so all houses remain open. Although from different backgrounds, throughout the film these women always listen to each other with sensitivity and compassion.
These dramatic stories of pain and charity are foreign to a privileged American like me. And yet the bullets that maimed and killed were almost always American, even when fired by Iraqis whose lives were thrown into chaos as a result of the invasion and occupation. Learning about the lives of these women, two of whom who have died since filming, in their own words and images helped me to intimately see some of the pain and suffering the American-led war has created. Indeed this film ought to be required viewing for all Americans so that senseless wars have no place in our shared futures.