The hoopla that accompanies the Academy Awards could not be further from the experience of making a documentary in today's Iraq. Nominated for best documentary award, Laura Poitras' My Country, My Country has stood out among the recent run of Iraqi-set material, in large part due to the director's determination to "make people feel" the gripping, intimate story of one family coping with the realities of the new Iraq, thereby painting a telling picture of wider despair.
Co-produced by Poitras' company Praxis Films and Itvs, in association with POV, My Country, My Country premiered at Berlin a year ago, and was released theatrically in the US by Zeitgeist Films last August. It is the only documentary this year to be nominated for both an Oscar and an Independent Spirit Award.
With funding from the Sundance Documentary Fund, Poitras is now developing the second film in her trilogy on post-9/11 America, The New American Century. This is a portrait of men returning home after being released from Guantanamo Bay. "These men have been away for five years, uncharged, in extreme conditions. It's unimaginable that this is happening in real time, that it's no secret." The final film will focus on national security and surveillance in the US.
New York-based Poitras, who won a Peabody Award for her last documentary Flag Wars (2003), shot the 90-minute My Country, My Country over eight months leading up to the elections on January 30, 2005. For the most part, she lived in Baghdad with the family of her lead character, a Sunni medical doctor and prospective parliamentary candidate. Working alone, with Jocelyn Glatzer co-producing back in the US, she was motivated by "a sense of despair - the tragic contradiction of the US mission".
Poitras met Dr Riyadh about a month after arriving in Iraq while filming an inspection of Abu Ghraib prison and observing him talking about politics with prisoners through the wire fence. "He invited me to film in his clinic and it was immediately clear that he was the character I was looking for. He was walking a line; he was against the occupation but wanted to participate in the democratic process."
A complex tragic hero, Dr Riyadh spent months persuading his patients and constituents - including his wife and six daughters - to vote, only to see his dream, and the whole election process, gradually disintegrate.
Working without a translator, Poitras relied as much on instincts as experience, placing the warm family dynamic at the heart of the film. "The family is religious, kind and generous, and it was so important to tell that story back in the US," she says. "It was down to pure human drama and cinematic language. I knew I was crafting a story, despite not being able to understand what was being said."
Editing with former DA Pennebaker collaborator Erez Laufer, she combined the doctor's story with other narratives, taking in American military briefings and joining Australian private security contractor Peter Towndrow on a trip by helicopter in Baghdad to buy weapons.
My Country, My Country was prescient in its portrayal of an Iraq descending into a vortex of violence. In scenes Poitras describes as "extremely emotional, very hard to film", Dr Riyadh frantically attempts to negotiate the release of his kidnapped nephew. During the edit back in New York, Dr Riyadh e-mailed to say that another nephew, a student doctor, had been assassinated - a detail included in a footnote at the end.
Poitras remains in contact with the family, who have since fled Iraq (Dr Riyadh was denied a visa to visit the US to mark the television broadcast of the film on PBS last October). Despite offers from Al Jazeera, the family's precarious safety prevents her selling the film in the Middle East.