This week I watched with the girlfriend two films about guerrillas, insurgency and wars of occupation: The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach’s loosely fictionalized account of a single Irish community, and a few families, during the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War, from a few years ago, and Meeting Resistance, a brilliant documentary from a years ago as well, filmed on location in Iraq, by a former member of the British Army who served in Northern Ireland; both films are chiefly remarkable for allowing their subjects, fairly ordinary people, to speak through action and in their own words, about the struggles in which they fight.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is fictional, to an extent, and its characters are invented whole cloth but invested by their actors with a dignity, seriousness and intelligence that is never particularly condescending nor romantic, as rural people tend to be portrayed in Hollywood films about Ireland especially. Better yet, this is a sympathetic but not sentimental portrayal of revolution from the ground up, as the historians say, something like Loach’s prior film Land and Freedom, or the films of Peter Watkins. It does not glamorize revolution or civil war; innocents are executed, brothers kill brothers, men puke their guts out from the carnage or are tortured by their enemies. Nor does it condemn it, as many a Hollywood film might do, blasting every side as being ‘the same’ and renouncing political violence while failing to offer any solution to what was a very real problem. The British are very much the bad guys, or rather the Blacks and Tans, as there is nary another British character on display but the Blacks and Tans; the viewer gets a real feeling for why occupiers are almost always genuinely hated, arrogant, violent, demanding, forcing humiliation, beating and murder as a matter of course. And really, how many Irish would have seen any Brits but a soldier at this time, men chosen specifically for their proclivity for violence, a very British Freikorps. This presentation of the British as almost unambiguous villains got the film widespread condemnation in the right-wing British press, unsurprisingly, who objected to the ‘heroic’ (not really) portrayal of Irish ‘terrorists’ killing innocent Brits; they complained that the British side of the issue was never presented. Of course, that ignores that most of the characters were Irish radicals anyway, supporters of the IRA and anti-treaty, anti-Free Staters as well, from West Cork, remote and Red, and that the film reflects their viewpoint, their arguments, their struggle, and doesn’t give a damn for the British side.
A more pernicious tendency of criticism, and this seemed to emerge in the American reviewers, was that the dialogue especially was unrealistic, and one meets the accusation that ‘no one’ (no one in the working class, at least) ever spoke like this, delivering speeches and speaking in terms of freedom, justice, class struggle, socialism, that no one ever stood in a tiny Irish council hall and debated with his neighbours the very serious political issue of the day, the one that literally meant life and death. Of course, to the modern reviewer, or to the modern viewer, of whom a few I know smirked at the dialogue, is often immersed chin-deep in postmodern irony and the popular vernacular of sarcasm and general insincerity, bemoaning that nothing can change, people can’t change, the world is shitty and better accept that as I make ridiculous, oh so clever jokes about unicorns…ahem…that went personal. The point is, ignoring my hyperbole there, people (again, the mythical working class of the postmodernist) aren’t supposed to debate this stuff, with such fervour and such articulation. It’s a valid criticism, but the actors of The Wind That Shakes the Barley stumble over lines, stutter, repeat themselves, scoff and yell it becomes very hard for me to deny that such debates did occur. The counter-argument would be that the film is therefore serving its propoganda tool of fooling me into thinking popular revolution was possible and is possible, that ordinary people can grapple with complex issues and decide their own fates. Of course, as a young historian I’ve actually read and have access to the kind of documentation, union minutes from meetings, factory records, diaries and journals, so I can say with more certainty than some that debates like this did happen and continue to happen. My final statement about the movie (beside the fact that it is very sad and made people like my dad, grizzled anarchists and even so pomos cry) is summed up nicely by a review from the website Spike Online (I don’t like a lot of what they say, but the site is always worth reading):
This debate, urged on by those who want a new social order and not just a new flag, is brought to life in a striking scene in a Sinn Fein courtroom, with real weight given to the protagonists on either side. It is the precursor to the magnificent set-piece debate that is at the heart of the film. The local IRA convenes to decide its position on the Treaty. The men and women that we have got to know sit around a large room and one after another they speak out, for and against. All the arguments are rehearsed. We must fight on – for the martyred dead; against the oath; for the Catholics in the North; for a socialist republic. We must take this deal for now – we are faced with immediate and terrible war; the British are in a corner too; we can regroup later; it would be a betrayal of the martyrs; the border is still open to discussion. The debate – it never stops – is later taken on to the next stage in the local church when the parish priest threatens the anti-Treaty side with excommunication.
It is an exhilarating expression of people being utterly gripped by one of those real, palpable, watershed moments. ‘Lads, we have freedom within our grasp’. says one. ‘We’re that close. It’s just one inch but it’s still out of reach. And if we stop now, we will never again…regain the power that I can feel in this room today. And if we stop short now, never in our lifetime…will we see that energy again. Ever!’
t is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what Loach’s critics find hardest to take is his sympathetic treatment of someone who believes that there are things worth fighting for and making sacrifices for, and his touching depiction of a group of people who have the temerity to engage, as it were, on equal terms with the challenges of their times. Not to be missed.
Meeting Resistance fills the gap that is only vaguely suggested by the timing of Loach’s film; watching them back to back really drew home the similarities to my girlfriend, who is much less familiar with either 1920’s Ireland or modern day Iraq. Meeting Resistance does for the Iraqis of the resistance what Barley tried to do for the Irish revolutionaries: give them a voice, a chance to speak and act for themselves beyond either the history books or the hot air of the pundits and the lies of the United States military and government. The tagline asks rather melodramatically ‘What would you do if America was invaded?” but the film answers the question only through elision; the Americans in the film, after all, are the bad guys, but we never see them, and instead we get interviews, engrossing and interesting, with a broad cross section of Iraqi society, almost all members of the ‘resistance’. The crew, led by Steve Connors (the guy from the British Army) and Molly Bingham, lets a group of insurgents in the Al Adhamiya district in Baghdad explain why they fight the occupation, how they organized, and the kind of backgrounds they have. It’s a broad mix, but few of them are either hard-core Baathists, supporters of Saddam Hussein, nor are they acolytes of Al-Qaeda desperate to wage global jihad in the name of Usama Bin Laden.
Instead, we have interviews with a former special forces officer, arrested and tortured by his own government, hateful of the army and government elites but even more willing to fight the occupation of his country. We have a local labourer and secularist, and Arab nationalist a fighter in the resistance in his own right, describing an apolitical young man from his neighbourhood, humiliated by the US forces; in revenge, he buys an RPG on his own and destroys a few humvees and than a tank. I don’t want to give anyone an untrue picture of the film; the Iraqi militants interviewed are not as sensible and secular as the labourer mentioned above, the former special forces offier or the middle class teacher who supplies arms and information. There is an Imam explaining the subtelties of Jihad and the glory of martyrdom. We meet a fighter wearing a kefiya, who has traveled from Syria to help his Arab and Muslim ‘brothers’ against the Americans, spurred on by the injustice of the invasion, willing to fight for Jihad and telling of his parents, jubilant on the outside, heartbroken on the inside. We meet a mother and wife who begs, in her fashion, for martyrdom. None of this is calculated to make a Christian supremacist or a rational atheist, or even someone who boosts in a nebulous fashion for Our Way of Life. It isn’t meant to be.
Jihad is the language of insurgent struggle in Iraq, in 2004 as in 2008. Jihad is what almost all of the interviewed use to describe their activities, it is right and pure to wage Jihad against invaders, in the name of Islam, and it is right and noble to die a martyr, better than to return alive and disgraced. There is much talk of honour and gallantry, and there is much nationalism of the kind we, so advanced in the West, claim to detest: irrational, emotional, intense, violent. The ideology propelling almost all of these insurgents is a potent mixture of Islam and nationalism, the kind we see as very dangerous in say, the United States. Most of the interviewed are quite willing to send Americans home in body bags, to kill them and hope for more to kill, and there is some talk by the mother I mentioned that she awaits her arrest, as a suitable martyrdom. Both the middle class teacher and the nationalist labourer bemoan the lack of dedication and determination of Iraqis to resist after the invasion; several of the former soldiers interviewed immediately began to organize a resistance in weeks, supplied by a growing net of foreign and local money raised covertly, their weapons smuggled over the border (“Thank God the border is free” says one fighter) This is undoubtably all very unsettling, and the movie resists desribing the insurgents as ‘freedom fighters.’ That isn’t what these Iraqi insurgents call themselves, fehaydeen instead, or muhajideen, words we are familiar with from the 80’s in Afghanistan. But Meeting Resistance makes it quite clear most of these insurgents are not religious fanatics, bloodthirsty murderers or member of Al-Qaeda.
There is a rather intense agreement amongst most interviewed that targetting civilians is wrong, that killing the innocent is wrong, that killing policemen or translators who do their job, as the insurgents see it, and do not openly collaborate, are to be left alone. Collaborators, naturally, are to be shown no mercy, and the film included footage of a dead body fished from the Tigris. Some of the former soldiers discuss the use of mines and IEDs as being less dangerous to bystanders than machine guns and rockets, which are much less precise in some ways. Suicide attacks are okay, glorious martyrdom and all that. There is some consensus that peaceful marches and protests are absolutely neccesary to winning the war, and there is an impressive scene in which many of the people filmed in the background, bakers, weight builders, women and men at bars, vendors and merchants, all agree that the resistance must win, Iraqis must resist, the Americans must go, and one woman in particular points out that if the bases and oil revenues stay in American hands, than the Iraqi government is meaningless. One of the interviewed fought in Fallujah, and tells the camera that the insurgents there had been willing to negotiate the hand over of those who murdered the four military contractors (remember, the dead bodies dragged through the street) in return for the pilots who bombed neighbourhoods in Fallujah. No deal was made, unsurprisingly. Despite all the religious rhetoric, Meeting Resistance gives one the sense that most Iraqis are intelligent, articulate and knowledgable about what is happening to their country and who is calling the shots…perhaps more knowledgable than most Americans about Iraq…naturally, you’d think, but the feeling I got from news reports about Iraq in 2003 and 2004 was that they are all helpless and apathetic and that certainly they don’t want to free their country from the occupiers.
We even get a sense that the animosity between Shia and Sunni that is so central to the way the war is told in the West, was not something lurking just below the surface, and that many fighters seemed convinced, at least a few years ago in 2004 (their feelings may have changed) that the occupation was behind the market bombings in Karbala against Shias; many Sunnis and Shias interwvieed argue that if only the Grand Ayatollah Sistani would issue a fatwa against the occupation, all Iraqis (okay, not the Kurds, deservedly so) would rise up against the occupation. Iraqi nationalism seemed as strong, at least in Baghdad, as religious identity, and most interviewed believed it would be a disaster if Shias and Sunnis started to fight, because so many shared family, friends, lives, workplaces. Perhaps the American divide and rule strategy was effective, because ethnic strife is all we hear about Iraq. Wishful thinking I’m sure, but still, Meeting Resistance, if it does nothing else, should demonstrate that ethnic and religious strife is not the only current ongoing in the euphemism that is the ‘Iraq conflict’ (kind of like the Malaysian emergency…except the Americans aren’t going to win). More from another blog review, War Post:
A wife whose husband and two sons are fighting the Americans delivers messages and sometimes weapons to the highly organized resistance in her neighborhood. A father of three identified as “the Teacher” preaches Jihad and criticizes Baath party members for not defending their country as so many other Iraqis are.
A pensive man, he explains the Al Adhamiya resistance as a group that “formed spontaneously under the banner of Islam,” but then says, “before these events, I didn’t pray. I didn’t even know my way to the mosque.
Louis Proyect has a great short review of the film from last year, indeed without it I would never have heard of this movie (the film festival in my home town did not pick it up, probably because it prefers noxious sentimental foreign bullshit as opposed to this kind of documentary), and I’ll point to it here. Here’s a pertinent quote to the filming of Meeting Resistance:
To the dismay of our families, the short answer is that we didn’t really have any guarantee of safety while we worked on this story. Like all other journalists working in Baghdad at the time we were the possible victims of random violence, being in the wrong place at the wrong time when an ambush occurs, an IED or a car bomb are detonated, being killed by coalition forces either during combat or like many civilian Iraqis, during the response to an attack, or being kidnapped. But we were also exposed to the specific dangers of this story; that the fighters we were interviewing would turn on us, or that one of the many intelligence services, militaries or militias in the country would find out what we were doing and decide to rough us up or kill us to find out what we knew. We are very lucky that none of the possible things that could have gone wrong did. Not all journalists who have been working in the country have been lucky.
Meeting Resistance is an important film, and I urge anyone reading this who has not seen it to go and rent it, now, if you can. To quote Proyect once more: “…this documentary accomplishes what all great art strives for, namely the humanization of its principals. With so much hatred directed against Sunni insurgents, who lack the socialist credentials of past insurgencies that attracted the solidarity of the Western left, “Meeting Resistance” takes a giant step forward in making the ‘enemy’s’ case.” Most damningly, Meeting Resistance points out what the Iraqi resistance was arguing in 2004: the majority of attacks were against US troops or collabators, as confirmed by US government statistics from the Department of Defense (see here if you don’t believe me)
Meeting Resistance and The Wind That Shakes the Barley connect together in action; they show people motivated to do faintly incredible things, show them with sympathy and without haughty condescension, show that people, ordinary people, workers, farmers, the poor, the angry, can actually think and act on their own, for themselves and for their communities, can actually understand their situation and try and change it. They are not sentimental films, they do not shy away from the truth of taking up arms, that all great change is horribly bought with bloodshed, but clearly state, it is better to revolt against oppression than to suffer it. And remember:
“ Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves” – Karl Marx
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