Thursday, July 20, 2006

Film Review #50: THE BLOOD OF MY BROTHER *************** Although he has now made three documentary films, Brooklyn-based Andrew Berends is first and foremost a still photographer. This may account for both the major problems & the most memorable, haunting qualities in his film, The Blood of My Brother, about how one Iraqi family carries on after its eldest son is killed by a US military patrol in Baghdad. This striking 84-minute film is one of two that Berends shot during eight months in Iraq two years ago – the other, When Adnan Comes Home, follows the almost-lethal incarceration of a 16-year-old boy arrested for stealing a few yards of electrical cable. Blood of My Brother premiered at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Festival last December, made the prestige doc festival rounds in Tehran, Prague & Athens, & had its US debut at Manhattan’s Tribeca Film Festival in April. On June 30th, it opened in limited theatrical release. *** It did not do well. As a movie you see in a regular theater, The Blood of My Brother has come & gone. This is not for an atmosphere uncongenial to films about how ordinary Iraqis have fared during this increasingly unpopular war. Lincoln Center’s Human Rights Film Festival in early June particularly highlighted such films – not just Michael Winterbottom’s related Road to GuantanĂ mo, but the Spanish documentary Winter in Baghdad & James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments, winner of three Sundance awards. Coming up on August 4th is Laura Poitras’ anticipated My Country, My Country, whose footage & sound she shot entirely alone while following a Sunni physician during his inspections of Abu Ghraib prison, treatment of patients & run for legislative office. *** My point is that Blood of My Brother has been born into excellent movie-making company at a time when documentary audiences seek a view of life on the other side of the battle-lines, though if any war destroys the remnants of thinking in such neatly demarcated images, it is surely this one. *** The Blood of My Brother expresses that very chaos in its fragmented on-screen narrative. Here is what Berends’ film is about. The Iraqi portrait photographer Ra’ad al-Azawi, an eldest son, is about to open his own photo shop. The night before the big day, a US patrol kills him while he is guarding the Shiite mosque in the Kadhimya section of Baghdad. Ra’ad is dubbed a martyr, his funeral attended by thousands. Younger brother Ibrahim, 19, now responsible for the family, struggles with whether to maintain the shop – for which he has neither talent nor business aptitude – or join the forces of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi militia. We see truly stunning footage of both insurgent gatherings & urban warfare – don’t forget, over 120 journalists have died covering this war – a demonstration for peace in Najaf, interviews with exceedingly young US soldiers, Ra’ad’s mother’s first visit to his grave, & Ibrahim’s eventual loss of the shop & descent to menial day labor. We do not see the story in anywhere near this order or clarity, but I’ll come back to that. *** There is a deep sadness at every turn in this film, from the opening moments in which Ibrahim awkwardly tries to persuade his bereft mother that it’s time to leave the cemetery. What emerges, & endures long after the film ends, is Andrew Berends’ felt kinship with Ra’ad al-Azawi as brother photographers. Ra’ad’s delicately colored portraits of children grace the screen from time to time, though initially it’s not clear they are his work. And, with what comes to seem like the filmmaker’s patience with Ibrahim, this movie finally becomes the intended generous act of a stand-in spiritual brother toward the slouchy, inarticulate, actually not very attractive young man. At some point, what flashes as vividly across the screen as the incessant deadly bursts of war is the sudden recognition that recording & telling another’s story is itself an act of kinship, a kind of looking-after the younger brother that Ra’ad himself might understand. *** These things emerge because Andrew Berends is a powerfully skillful and talented photographer whose subject is actually another photographer. The primary flaw in the film is that it’s nearly impossible to follow on its own. Because I had a press kit when I saw it, I had the benefit of Andrew Berends’ statement about his intentions as well as background information. I suspect this film has not done well in theaters because most movie-goers expect a film labeled “documentary” to have a minimally orderly narrative – even though many will recognize figures like Moqtada al-Sadr from newscasts, & even allowing for the film’s aesthetic expressing the chaotic experience it records. *** There’s another setting in which a film like this does fit. And that is where you will be able to see it. As gallery exhibits, films, videos & photos customarily have just such explanatory artists’ statements attached to them as Berends has written for this one. We expect these statements; they free visual art from demands for narrative order & provide context. Once I knew that Blood of My Brother is part of such a project, my discomfort relaxed. Inexplicably, this information was not part of the publicity during the film’s brief solo life as a feature movie. *** Unembedded is the name of the collective gallery project of Andrew Berends, filmmaker James Longley (whose doc, Iraq in Fragments, is also making a stab as a free-standing movie), & four other photographers. All have worked solo in Iraq since the US invasion. These include Rita Leistner, who covered a women’s unit in a Kurdish militia & more recently, women who seek refuge in Iraqi psychiatric wards to avoid honor killings; Kael Alford – she covered Baghdad during the shock & awe bombing; Thorne Anderson, & an Iraqi, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, whose training as an architect shows in his pictures. The exhibit presents 60 still photos plus the Berends & Longley films. Now on tour, it’s opening tonight, actually, at Orange County Community College in Middletown. It later goes to Phoenix, Detroit, & in October, to Yale University. You can buy the book, with all 150 photos, on-line. There’s a website with a generous sample of extraordinary photos. I’d like to see Embedded come to Syracuse – in my mind’s eye, it’s already right at home at LightWorks or the Lowe Gallery ot the Community Folk Art Gallery. Join me? * (1,050) *** This review was broadcast on Women's Voices Radio, WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM on 7/20/2006.