In the modern era, has there been a country besides Iraq that we've seen so little of yet supposedly care so much about? With that in mind Laura Poitras' "My Country My Country" is by default a good maybe a great documentary, because it allows us to pause and take a long look at the war-torn desert nation without the severe time limits of the nightly news. It also offers us a chance to see Iraq not only from military vehicles and the front lines, but also from inside the homes of the people who live there.
The film, part of the PBS series "P.O.V.," opens on the elections of 2005, two years after the start of the war, then skips back six months to survey the thoughts of citizens and occupiers preparing for it. The overall scene is familiar: Iraqis keep a low profile, checkpoints bristle with barbed wire and signs warning of death, helicopter gunships float through the air like giant black mosquitoes.
Cautiously moving amid this rubble of civilization is Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni, and the central Iraqi of the film. The chaos he finds daily is much vivider than the dull numbers we read about. In war, pity is in the details: the friends whose sons have been abducted, the pathology of mercenaries, the 9-year-old boys held in American military prisons. "We've checked their files," a U.S. soldier says of the boys when Dr. Riyadh complains. "These are dangerous individuals."
Because the focus is the elections, we learn a lot about how the various players feel about them. Most of the people, we might not be surprised to learn, feel that the election is a sham. The surprising thing is the complex variety of the reaction. Some people, be they American, Iraqi or international observer, know it's a sham and welcome it anyway. Any election, it seems, is a good election, the first step in ending the war. How quaint that idea seems two years later, as many voters in recent U.S. elections no doubt went to the ballot boxes with the same hope.
The silent question hanging over this film (and us) is whether you can elect away such a mire of hopelessness. Can some grand mechanism be it a war or an election save them, or us? "Saddam ruined the country," Dr. Riyadh's wife tells him, "and you all just sat there." Is it now too late to act? (NR) 90 min. **** S