- Your Country, My Country:How Films About The Iraq War Construct Publics
American documentaries about Iraq are fascinating from many perspectives, but they matter to us all now because they are active interventions in public life, on a topic that concerns each American in some way. They fit squarely into a core expectation about documentaries: that they will be about something timely and important.
They have arrived at a moment when political documentary is growing rapidly in popularity. For instance, a Pew survey after the 2004 national election (see http://www.pewinternet.org/report_display.asp?r=147) reported that 31% of American adults said they had seen a political documentary relating to the campaign or the candidates.
They also fit squarely into an expectation about democracy and public life: that it is fed by the provision of information for public knowledge and action. By public, we mean here a group of people mobilized by their common knowledge of common problems, as American philosopher John Dewey used the term in his landmark 1927 book, The Public and Its Problems. Publics, informal networks of people linked by common concerns, are formed by communication with each other about these problems, and their communication is fed by media provision. They create public spheres, to use a term given stature by the work of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Publics are not, in this sense, unitary blocs under the rubric of a nation state or society, but, rather, groups constituted informally around issues or problems. Publics around the issues of the Iraq War may be national (federal taxpayers), regional (people represented by their National Guards), local (residents of a neighborhood whose resources are changed by the war), or issue-specific (families of poorly-provisioned soldiers). [End Page 56]
Iraq documentaries have rushed in—and by now there are dozens, with more than a score distributed—to fill gaps in mainstream media coverage of Iraq. They provide explanations of "why we are in Iraq" if there are no weapons of mass destruction and there never were. They provide a chronicle of the actual experience of combat. They provide a window into the daily lives of Iraqis. Some have been designed to enlighten and inform, others to mobilize. All of them have both exemplified and played a role in the growing public disillusionment with the war, with the regimes that have led the war, and with the quality and process of providing systems for both supplies and people to wage the war.
Thus, these documentaries are not only movies about the Iraq War, they are also part of a process of constituting a public around the issues of the war. How can we understand them specifically in their role as agents of the construction of publics? Different kinds of work approach and even define the problem differently, with different implications for the nature of public engagement. Here, three approaches are addressed: essays about the legitimacy and logic of the war; films about soldiers' experiences; and films about the Iraqi experience of war.
These are essay films that analyze and extrapolate motives for the U.S. government's decision to invade Iraq. They include the film that started the current trend, Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, US, 2004); Why We Fight (Eugene Jarecki, US, 2005); Iraq for Sale (Brave New Films, US, 2006); and Shocking and Awful (Deep Dish TV, US, 2005).
In terms of constructing publics, all of Michael Moore's work is a fascinating exercise in tension. The charged polarity in his films is really between the victims and the powerful. Moore's projects portray a world divided between the atomized and downtrodden, and the callously rich and powerful. He acts, in all his films, as the representative of the people who do not have agency, the victims, and he uses the weapons of the weak—laughter, ridicule, shame—to point fingers at the powerful. This is a different project from invoking agency—calling on people to assume the power they have—and it is also extremely entertaining. It is especially so for middle-class white audiences (the demographic that goes to documentaries) who thus may be...