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Sunday, April 24, 2005

MEDIA MIX

Documenting hell on Earth: At a theater near you


Because of the dangerous situation there, none of the commercial Japanese TV networks have staff correspondents in Iraq. On-site reporting that's shown on Japanese TV is from either other countries' news organizations or freelance Japanese reporters, the most prominent of whom is probably Takeharu Watai, a member of the Asia Press International video reporters collective. Watai has submitted reports to all the major Japanese networks except NHK, and this week his documentary about the Iraq War, "Little Birds," starts a theatrical run in Tokyo.

API's stated purpose is to "listen and give voice to people ignored and shunned by major mass media networks." Two weeks ago, when TBS's nightly news program, "News 23," showed clips from "Little Birds" and interviewed Watai, anchorman Tetsuya Chikushi commented that war reporting usually focuses on big stories that are easy to grasp, like bombings and battles. Watai has done that, but there are many things he wants to convey about the situation in Iraq that rarely make it to television, either because of their graphic nature or because they don't lend themselves to simple, immediate explanations. "I wanted to show what Iraqi people are going through," he said.

On the Internet it's easy to find blogs written by reporters working in Iraq that give viewers a better idea of what the Iraqi people are going through than the major news outlets do. But the focus of blogs tends to be narrow, and the author's voice is often as central to the reporting as is the subject being reported.

"Little Birds" has a similar effect. It is one man's tour of hell with a camcorder, and while the images add immeasurably to our appreciation of what is going on in Iraq they raise as many questions as they answer.

Watai's structure is schematic and follows his view that the American "liberation" and ongoing occupation of Iraq is morally indefensible. The opening scenes, shot just prior to the March 2003 invasion, show a thriving civil society and working economy: busy markets, people watching TV, kids playing. When the bombs start to fall, Watai himself is implicated in the death and destruction by people on the street. "Your government supports Bush!" one angry man says to the camera. Watai, clearly distressed by this accusation, verbally disavows any support for the United States or Japan.

Michael Moore and his ilk notwithstanding, reporters try not to inject themselves into the stories they report. Watai struggles with this concept, and his understanding that he may represent Japan and the U.S. to the people he's covering becomes the subtext of "Little Birds."

He takes the carnage personally. When the Americans arrive in Baghdad and are met not by cheering masses but by people yelling epithets, he captures on tape a lone woman screaming at the tanks in English: "You f***ing cowards hiding behind your big machines. Go to the hospitals and see all the children you have killed."

As if the woman were talking to him, Watai does just that, and amidst the broken bodies and piles of bloody clothing his camera rests on a 31-year-old man named Ali as he weeps over the body of his daughter, one of three children killed when a bomb hit his house.

Ali becomes the main subject of the film, a man whose anger and background (Gulf War veteran, brother and uncle killed in the war with Iran) are convenient for Watai's purposes. The reporter gives him plenty of opportunity to express his grief and follows him as he tries, unsuccessfully, to extract compensation from the American military for his loss. He later shows Ali brandishing an AK-47, which he vows to use against any American soldiers who enter his house.

Ali's bitterness is contrasted with the resignation and relative optimism of a 12-year-old girl as she undergoes treatment to repair her right eye, which was injured when a bomb fell on her house. It is the killing and maiming of children as "collateral damage" that is the anti-war movement's strongest point of contention, and it is Watai's aim to confront the viewer with as much physical evidence of the war's careless regard for human life as he can.

Watai treats Japan's Self-Defense Forces as a joke, showing them tasting local dishes for Japanese reporters as if they were TV personalities on a variety show. Noticeable by its absence is any discussion of why Iraq is occupied. Watai doesn't depict or interview any of the people who the U.S. administration and media say are thankful the Americans are there. On "News 23," he said that Sunnis and Shiites once "coexisted," but the occupation and elections have "driven a wedge" between the two groups.

Such thoughtful analysis is not included in the movie, which mainly conveys Watai's own sense of helplessness in the face of suffering. He confronts U.S. soldiers with questions they can't possibly answer. "They haven't found weapons of mass destruction," he says to a very young, confused-looking infantryman, referring to the ostensible reason for the war. "What do you think?"

"Why are you asking me?" the soldier replies.

Watai's question in this instance might seem, on the surface, to have no journalistic purpose, but that doesn't make it any less powerful or pointed. In his capacity as an independent reporter covering a story that is too big for one person, Watai's feeling of being overwhelmed is palpable. All he can do is point his camera at one thing at a time and hope that, taken together, all these images give viewers a deeper sense of the Iraq tragedy that they can't get from the news.

"Little Birds" is now playing in Shinjuku K's Cinema, Tokyo; Opens in Osaka and Nagoya in June; Hiroshima in July. In Arabic and English with Japanese subtitles.


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