Judge Victor Valdivia wishes some documentaries were more thorough. He still recalls seeing one entitled Some Stuff That Happened Sometime.
What Would You Do If America Was Invaded?
It's a provocative question and Meeting Resistance asks it to help viewers get inside the minds of the anti-Coalition insurgency in Iraq. This is a challenging and necessary documentary that's unfortunately too often dated and incomplete.
Facts of the Case
Between August 2003 and May 2004, journalists and directors Molly Bingham and Steve Connors interviewed nine individuals who play key roles in the Iraqi anti-Coalition insurgency in the city of Adhamiya, near Baghdad. Their faces are all hidden and they are identified only by one-word descriptions: the Teacher, the Traveler, the Imam, the Warrior, the Wife, the Lieutenant, the Syrian, the Republican Guard, and the Fugitive. The subjects discuss their roles in the insurgency, from funding and supplies to training and operations. In addition, interviews with other Iraqi citizens and rare footage paint a picture of how the insurgency formed, how it works, and why it will not end until all Coalition forces leave Iraq.
Meeting Resistance is an immensely frustrating film. It's an important look at the resistance in Iraq, and it shows a side of the war few people even know about. Unfortunately, while much of it is fascinating, the filmmakers chose not to update Meeting Resistance from when it was originally shot, meaning it leaves viewers wondering how much it has to do with the situation in Iraq today.
The film shows, through the different viewpoints, how complex and well-established the resistance is. Not all of the insurgents profiled here actually fight. In fact, only the Warrior, the Syrian, the Fugitive, and the Lieutenant have taken part in actual battles. Most of the others have important support roles. The Teacher procures weapons and handles funding. The Traveler is a recruiter and trainer. The Wife smuggles weapons, supplies, and money to her husband's clique. How the resistance gets funded, how it trains, how it picks targets, and how it deals out discipline to its troops are explained in detail. This is not a film that is always easy to watch, as some of the footage and stories told are ugly and horrific. Nor can it be argued that the film glamorizes or champions the insurgents; in one instance of the filmmakers showing these people as they really are, the Warrior describes the tortures he was put through at the hands of Saddam's Ba'ath Party and prefaces them by remarking casually that he "wouldn't even wish them on a Jew." If a couple of them (mainly the Traveler and the Teacher) come off as slightly sympathetic, it's only because their reasons for refusing to accept the Coalition forces are argued clearly and convincingly, unlike some of the others.
Meeting Resistance does make some important points. First and foremost, it puts paid to the canard floated by the Bush administration that the insurgency consists entirely of al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed fighters. The majority of the insurgents are native Iraqis who resent foreign occupation of their homeland. It was also a lie that, in the first few months of the post-invasion period, the insurgents were Ba'ath party loyalists who wanted Saddam Hussein returned to power. The Warrior tells a gruesome story of how he was tortured under Saddam's orders. The Traveler was an official in the Ba'ath Party but quit in disgust in 1990 over its rampant corruption and abuses. Both the Teacher and the Imam recall how neither liked or supported Saddam's regime. In addition, the film is especially damning in relating how well-known the abuses committed by Coalition forces against suspected insurgents were. In interviews dated from 2003, the insurgents profiled here describe the tortures inflicted on Iraqis at Abu Ghraib Prison in detail, several months before the story was publicized in the American press in 2004.
All of this is immensely fascinating. But the film suffers from a critical, if not fatal, flaw: the newest footage and information in it dates from early 2004. Given the massive changes that occurred almost daily in Iraq after the invasion, this is significant. On the commentary track, Bingham and Connors both refer to the insurgency as "the I.R.A. on speed," meaning that it only took a few months (rather than years) for the resistance to evolve from ragtag bands of partisans to well-trained and well-funded militias. But even though they have acknowledged how fast the situation changes, they still have not updated the film to reflect the new realities that have emerged since 2004. When an Iraqi professor gives statistics that show that over 80 percent of the insurgents are native Iraqis rather than foreign interlopers, it's hard not to question whether those statistics are still as true today as they were in 2004. When many of the insurgents assert that they can't imagine any interfaith fighting between Sunni and Shia Iraqis, it's hard not think about the destruction of the mosque at Samarra a year or so later that would trigger exactly the bloody interfaith war that they dismiss. When the Warrior and the Lieutenant both insist that neither they nor any of their associates target Iraqi civilians, it's especially hard not to recall the rise of vicious Sunni and Shia militias over the last three years that do just that.
In the supplements on the DVD, the filmmakers address some of these issues. On the commentary and on the "Directors' Statement" (available as a PDF file on the disc), they cite Defense Department figures showing that even as of last year, nearly 75 percent of insurgent attacks still target U.S. soldiers rather than civilians. But because most of these attacks are on a small scale and because U.S. soldiers have better training and armor than Iraqi civilians, these attacks are less spectacular and are therefore underreported in the press. They also explain in the commentary that the sectarian bloodshed has emerged primarily due to external influences, partly from militant Sunni groups (like al-Qaeda) and Shia (like those funded by Iran) that want Iraq partitioned amongst religious and ethnic lines. But because these groups primarily target civilians, they do not enjoy a wide support among the Iraqi population (in fact, the much-touted success of the recent "surge" is really due to exploiting local resentment of these groups by essentially paying off neighborhood militias to hand over these guerillas to U.S. troops). The filmmakers go into further detail on their official Web site (see the Accomplices section) and they do answer many of the questions left after watching the feature, but one has to wonder why these weren't answered in the main body of the film. Since Meeting Resistance was released last year, and it already has many screens of text to fill in some details, why didn't the filmmakers add a few more to try to clarify these points further? Leaving these for the supplements isn't enough.
Ultimately, Meeting Resistance winds up as a film that's more about the rise of the Iraqi resistance than its current state. It winds up as a careful and cogent refutation to the arguments about the insurgency made by the Bush administration in 2003 and 2004. However, it is less useful in explaining the resistance of today. Even though Bingham and Connors explain the current situation clearly in the supplements, their decision to not update the film itself to reflect it is hugely disappointing. Had they taken the time to insert a few updates, this film would have been essential. Instead, it's only partly useful.
Meeting Resistance was shot on DV and presented in a full-screen transfer with a stereo mix. Both are pristine, reflecting how recent the footage is. In addition to the commentary and written statement, the disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (1:33) and text biographies of the filmmakers.
Meeting Resistance tells an important story that anyone who wants to understand the Iraq War should see. It's fair-minded, relating these stories without any particular agenda other than uncovering the true nature of the insurgency. But viewers who see it will have to use the DVD's supplemental materials to really get the whole story. The film itself just leaves too many questions unanswered.
The court grants that Meeting Resistance is an important and necessary film that deserves a wider audience, but still convicts it of not being as thorough as it could have been.
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