Director Laura Poitras‘ traveled to Iraq for her latest film, “My Country, My Country.” She is known to doc fans for her work in “Flag Wars,” co-directed with Linda Goode Bryant, which garnered awards at both Full Frame and the SXSW Film Festival in 2003 as well as a Peabody Award and Independent Spirit Award nomination in 2004. Poitras traveled to Iraq as the Abu Ghraib scandal began to come to the world’s attention and found the subject for her latest film, which screened most recently at the Seattle International Film Festival. The film centers around Sunni political candidate, Dr. Riyadh, a medical doctor and father of six. Described by distributor, Zeitgeist Films as “unfolding like a narrative drama,” the doc follows the agonizing predicament of one man caught in the tragic contradictions of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and its effort to spread democracy in the Middle East. Poitras reveals to indieWIRE what drove her to travel to one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and how she managed to travel within the country. Zeitgeist opens the film Friday, August 4 in limited release.
Please tell us about yourself and backgound. Did you go to film school?
Before making films I was a professional chef. [which] I did for ten years. I was working at a French restaurant in San Francisco (Masa’s), and I started taking filmmaking classes at the San Francisco Art Institute on the side. My first teacher was Ernie Gehr, an avant-garde filmmaker. The first film he showed was his brilliant 1970 film “Serene Velocity,” a 23-minute structuralist mediation on a hallway. I started making super-8 and 16m silent films while still cooking, but the filmmaking took over. Although my documentary work is more accessible than the avant-garde filmmaking I studied, I am still influenced by what I learned. I still shoot and (co)edit my own work, and believe that documentary filmmaking is a visual/audio art form.
When I’m not shooting, I live in NYC.
How/where did the initial ideas for “My Country, My Country” come from?
In November 2003 I read an article by George Packer in the New Yorker (“War After the War”), about the first months of the U.S. occupation in Iraq. It was one of those very long New Yorker article that take days to read. By the time I finished it, I knew I was making a documentary in Iraq. I was motivated by a sense of despair about the war, and a desire to reveal what was happening in Iraq through the stories of people on the ground.
I met Dr. Riyadh, the main character, at Abu Ghraib prison. It was July 2004, three months after the torture photographs were made public. I had been in Iraq for thee weeks and I was looking to find the main characters for the film. Dr. Riyadh was leading the inspection of the prison for Baghdad City Council. As I filmed Dr. Riyadh talking to detainees across razor wire and miles of fence, I knew I’d found the protagonist of the film.
I asked the U.S. military officer who organized the inspection what he knew about Dr. Riyadh and he said, “Well, of course, the CIA thinks he is a bad guy. They want him arrested.” I learned later that the CIA considered Dr. Riyadh a “bad guy” because he was critical of the U.S. occupation.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?
Oddly, the biggest challenge wasn’t shooting in Iraq. That was pretty straight forward, albeit dangerous. The biggest challenge came when I returned to the U.S. and needed to navigate distribution. I really wanted the film to have a theatrical release and public life before its broadcast. However, our funding came largely from broadcast – ITVS is the major funder and POV also contributed. I was very fortunate that ITVS, P.O.V., and Zeitgeist Films were all passionate about the film and worked together to make the theatrical release possible.
How did the financing evolve?
I began production in Baghdad with two small grants and my own investment. My producer, Jocelyn Glatzer, raised the finishing funds while I was in Iraq. The main funder was ITVS. Their offer came towards the end of shooting and was finalized when I returned to the U.S. The Sundance Institute Documentary Fund and POV/American Documentary also contributed money. In the end, I think it was good I didn’t have funding in place during production. Being attached to a funding while shooting in Iraq might have created liability problems. Being independent allowed me to work and move freely.
While in Baghdad, my production expenses were minimal. I was working alone (doing camera/sound), and people went out of their way to help me. It can be prohibitively expensive to film in Iraq, and I was pretty shameless about begging favors. The company that did the air transportation for the elections flew me via helicopter between Baghdad and Kurdistan countless times. They usually charged clients $3,000 for the short five minute ride between the Green Zone and the Baghdad airport, so I was very fortunate they took me for free. A month after I got back to New York, the Bulgarian team that flew me were shot down and killed over Tikrit.
What are your biggest creative influences?
Frederick Wiseman, Wong Kar-Wai, Chantel Akerman, Theodor Adorno, Alexander Kluge, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Atom Egoyan.
What is your definition of “independent film?”
For me, independent films are films that are driven by, and express, an artistic vision rather than films that are driven by, and express, market interests.
What are some of your all-time favorite films, and some of your recent favorite films?
My favorite films are the body of work by the filmmakers named above.
For recent film, I just saw a beautiful verite documentary, “9 Star Hotel,” by Ido Haar. It follows young Palestinian construction workers who illegally cross between the occupied territories into Israel to build a Jewish community. I also love Pirjo Honkasalo‘s “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia.”
What are your interests outside of film?
Encountering people driven by passion, cooking dinner for friends, practicing ashtanga yoga.
How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
Success is telling compelling stories that reveal the humanity of people, resonate emotionally, and challenge the perceptions of audiences. From there, hopefully, everything else will follow.