Judge Neal Solon appreciated this documentary's attempt to show Iraq and its troubles through Iraqi eyes.
"In their words, by their hands, through their eyes."
The Dreams of Sparrows is being sold as "an incredible unfiltered portrait of life in Baghdad after the U.S. invasion shot by five Iraqi filmmakers." It's a bit of a run-on sentence fragment, but few taglines are closer to the truth. This is, simply, the story of Iraq told by Iraqis.
Facts of the Case
In 2003, first-time Iraqi filmmaker Hayder Mousa Daffer decided it was time to make a film about Iraq from the inside. He gathered together four "contributing directors," handed each of them a camera, and sent them out to interview their countrymen. The resulting film is a patchwork of views from every side of the issues facing Iraq.
Media is an intriguing, uneasy source of information. When we rely on media for facts regarding a situation for which we have no other context, we are at the mercy of journalists, writers, and filmmakers, and their scruples. When we can, we use other sources of media to provide corroboration; yet as the media consolidates, this becomes a less viable option. Now, imagine a story that only one person chooses to tell. This is, essentially, the case with the story of the Iraqi people. The American media and the government continually speculate and editorialize on how they imagine the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the deposition of Saddam Hussein have affected the average Iraqi citizen. The Dreams of Sparrows, however, is the first time I have heard this story from the mouths of Iraqis.
When I was first watching The Dreams of Sparrows to write this review, I considered featuring a quote from an Iraqi schoolgirl. who is shown on camera with a picture of a tank, a helicopter, and a burning forest saying "Here is war. Before the war, we used to draw happy things, but since the start of the war, we only draw things that scare us and give us terror. " This, however, would have misrepresented the film as a whole, and done the filmmakers a great disservice. The Dreams of Sparrows is one of those documentary films onto which the viewer can easily project his or her own political opinions. If, however, one consciously steps back and looks at the film through unclouded eyes, it becomes clear that it doesn't tell just one story; it tells dozens of them, with no unifying point of view. If you were to pick a quote at random, it would be almost as likely to be pro-Bush or pro-invasion as pro-Saddam or partial to the word "occupation." This evenhandedness is the source of both the film's greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses.
By not presenting a unified reaction to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Daffer avoids the broad strokes typical of political portraiture—but his story also becomes necessarily disjointed. There is no plot, nor much chronology. In many ways, these things would have added a sense of artificiality to a film that tries to be anything but artificial. Daffer and his team have to draw the viewer into the film in other ways: with authentic, contrasting views, and by book-ending the film with their own personal stories.
The filmmakers themselves hold wildly disparate views on the happenings of the last few years. One goes so far as to flip open his wallet on camera to display a picture of George W. Bush, whom he claims to love as much as he loves his own father. Other contributors are far less gushing. No one, however, is left unaffected by the saddest irony of the film: as The Dreams of Sparrows comes to a close, one of the producers most enamored of George W. Bush is caught in a crossfire between U.S. soldiers and insurgents, and is shot dead by American bullets. His friends find his car torn apart by more than a hundred bullet holes. It is a tragedy that brings home the day-to-day realities of the situation in Iraq that exist beyond the scope of political posturing. It also effortlessly personalizes a film that is, by its nature, a collection of wide-ranging, divergent social and political views.
Whatever your political bent, The Dreams of Sparrows provides a story that you won't find elsewhere. Thankfully, the presentation does justice to the material. The film is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio, and is exactly what you would expect from a film carefully shot with handheld video cameras: nothing revolutionary, but adequate at presenting the story being told. The audio, too, is solid. The only time that the audio levels become an issue is during a couple of the extra features.
These features themselves are a mixed bag. There are some meaningful additions in the form of extended interviews and political discussions, along with a brief interview of filmmaker Hayder Mousa Daffer, who discusses his thoughts on the past and future of Iraq. On the other hand, there are a few extras that are based around the physical and mental differences of individual Iraqi citizens. While discussions of the patients at a mental hospital during the film proper lead to conclusions about the lasting effects of Saddam Hussein's regime, these extra clips seem, rather, to be having a laugh at the expense of the handicapped. The disc would have been better off without them.
As a whole, The Dreams of Sparrows is an intelligent, worthwhile, and impressive package. It is impressive, most of all, for the new and varied perspectives that it offers. In his interview included in the extra features, Hayder Mousa Daffer bemoans the fact that Saddam did not know what cinema was; that his "cinema" was wholly ideological. Daffer seems to have taken every step to avoid the same pitfalls, and should be commended. His careful evenhandedness makes this final product all the more worthwhile.
All parties involved in the making of this film are to be released immediately. Americans of all political persuasions are hereby given the option of viewing this film and writing a five-page report to excise two "the international community sees me as a bully" points from their state issued driver's licenses. Case dismissed!
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