On March 20, several thousand concerned citizens took to the streets of San Francisco to protest the one-year anniversary of the United States invasion of Iraq. That evening, dovetailing with the march, the Mission District's ATA (Artists Television Access) presented a marathon session of video shorts and documentaries about the war.
Though not predominately a political entity, ATA's focus on experimental film made it a perfect showcase for the series of films, all independently produced and rarely if ever shown in the country where the invasion was hatched.
ATA typically does thematically-based shows. A central theme throughout the March 20th evening production was the role the mainstream/corporate American media played (and continues to play) in producing a disconnect between perception and reality, a disconnect which is faint in this bluest gemstone of the blue region, where alternative media flourish and constructive criticism is seen as the highest act of patriotism.
As the crowd filtered in past a donation table with several piles of free literature, a military promotional film by Keith Sanborn appeared on the screen. Throughout "Operation Double Trouble", shots of aircraft carriers, men in submarines, and fighter jets hovering high above the clouds filled the screen as motivational music played in the background. Intermixed with patriotic military shots were testimonials from a private who said she could do nothing more honorable than defend her country, and from a general serving in the Iraq operation who said "I worry about the youth of America", until he interacted with dutiful young soldiers who renewed his faith in America's future. Cutting against the red, white and blue tenor was a freeze-frame effect, in which conceivably propagandistic statements were stopped, rewound, and showed again, forcing the viewer to actually think about what they were seeing and hearing.
Next up was "Hollywood Victory", courtesy of Paper Tiger TV , a "neoconservative project", "directed" by Dick Cheney, "produced" by Jerry Bruckheimer. "Victory" was a farce that zeroed in on the power of images. Over footage of George W's (in)famous GI Joe landing on a carrier in a flight suit was a voiceover of a stern military man saying "Son, your ego's writing checks your body can't cash", and a throwaway 80's theme song complete with power chords and cheesewiz synth. From the landing "Victory" cut to a shot of Robert Novak, a Republican talking head, saying how good Bush looked in the jumpsuit, laughing that he himself wouldn't look that good, and David Broder, long-time reporter for The Washington Post, saying how much "authority" Bush's imagemakers had instilled (in a man of such distinctly unpresidential timber?). After blips of whitewashed patriotic mainstream news coverage was Michael Moore's speech accepting the best documentary Oscar for "Bowling for Columbine", in which he spoke of "fictitious presidents" and "fictitious wars", only to be booed by some of the suits in the crowd and cut off by the academy orchestra. Public Enemy's "Don't Believe the Hype" closed the short on a powerful note.
"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."Â
-A.J. Liebling, journalist
The meat of the marathon presentation began with "Independent Media in Time of War", a mini-documentary featuring Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, produced by IndyMedia, an organization dedicated to a vibrant alternative press. Standing at a podium, Amy Goodman laid out one example after another of the complicity of US major media in the invasion of Iraq. In the first striking example, Goodman related the distinction between CNN (shown in America only) and CNN International (shown abroad): on the day that the US military took Baghdad and Saddam's statue was toppled, American CNN viewers saw the statue and only the statue falling all day, whereas international CNN viewers - who demand a balanced approach to news - saw a split-screen, with Saddam's statue on the left, and casualties of war on the right. Made plain was why many Americans have a good feeling about the invasion, relative to people abroad who got a fuller picture from CNN International, plus the much more critical mainstream news sources in their own countries. When asked why CNN America did not show casualties, a CNN exec said (of the casualties) "some of them are tasteless." Spoonfeeding an audience that knew no better, the US media bombarded their viewers with romanticized shots of soldiers walking in slow-mo across a tarmac, and fighter planes gleaming in a morning sunset. The American coverage repeatedly referred to the precision of the US operation; after all, as Tom Brokaw of GE/NBC news at night said when the bombing began, "We don't want to destroy the infrastructure, because we'll own it in a few days".
The American television media interviewed generals and administration officials who supported the invasion. According to FAIR, in the week before and the week after the invasion the major networks and PBS had 393 interviews, only three of which were with people opposed to the war. Goodman pointed out that in a true democracy, where a diversity of opinions would be honored, every interview with a general talking about the specs of their war machinery would be matched by a doctor explaining in the driest, most objective terms exactly what bombs do to the human body. Alongside reporters embedded in the military would be reporters embedded in the peace movement and among Iraqi families. Goodman culminated this segment by asking: "If this was state media how would it be any different?"
Next Goodman talked about the human costs of the invasion, including the fact that the majority of deaths occurred among Iraqi civilians, and told the story of an errant bomb on the first day of Operation Iraqi Freedom that hit an apartment complex, killing a four year-old girl, her mother, and her mother's sister, and injuring many more. Another casualty of imprecision was the Hotel Palestine, a hotel in Baghdad that at the time housed over 100 journalists, a fact universally well-known among world media. Coincidentally, the hotel - which was shelled by American tanks - contained offices of Al Jazeera, a major Middle Eastern media organ critical of the invasion. Many journalists were injured, and a Spanish journalist and a Palestinian journalist were killed. Not long after, members of the Spanish press stood in front of the US embassy chanting "murderer, murderer". One wondered if the tragedy could have been averted, had Al Jazeera not given their precise coordinates to the Pentagon.
Back home, the incident was written off as a mistake by Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clark, who acquired her job by orchestrating (what was later to be proven false) public testimony from a young Kuwaiti girl of babies being pulled out of incubators by Iraqi soldiers in the run up to Gulf War I. Meanwhile Clear Channel, the largest owner of radio stations in the US, told its 1,400 stations to black out music critical of the war, and hip hop artist Michael Franti - a spiritual social critic - discovered that members of his band had gotten a knock on the door from the FBI, who had taken pictures of them at a recent Franti concert. Goodman closed with a statement on the need for more independent media in the US, to restore this country to its once proud tradition of true freedom of expression.
All proceeds from the door (contributions were voluntary) and from the concession table (where beer and hotdogs were sold) went to Moveon.org, who produced the next mini-documentary, "Uncovered: the whole truth about the war in Iraq" . Though more slickly produced than the other shorts, "Uncovered" was no less effective, because most of the people interviewed - former members of the military, CIA, State Department, foreign service, and former weapons inspector Scott Ritter - had all been part of the US foreign policy apparatus. Tackling the sheer number of Administration misstatements about the Iraq invasion could take a lifetime, so this documentary cut to the chase, focusing on the administration's coordinated televised statements in the months before the invasion. While weapons inspector Hans Blix saw no harm in giving the inspections (of Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction) another 3 - 4 months, footage showed Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz and administration press secretary Ari Fleischer warning of the "imminent threat" of Saddam's weaponry in a barrage of quickly edited cuts that cleverly showed the drumbeat effect of the media offensive. When asked how he knew these weapons existed, Cheney referred to "the quality of our intelligence", though CIA findings were quite vague, what Nation columnist David Corn called "circumstantial, inferential ... with caveats and qualifiers." In fact, Hussain Kamel, an Iraqi defector who had been head of Saddam's weapons program, said he had destroyed all biological and chemical weapons on Saddam Hussein's command many years back. Kamel's inconvenient information was ignored.
The other major justification for the Iraq invasion was the contention that Iraq had ties to al Qaeda, and thus represented a front in the war on terrorism. But as former administration diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV pointed out, Saddam was actually a secular leader with no proven ties to al Qaeda. In fact, Osama bin Laden called Saddam a "Socialist infidel". By contrast, administration allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are well-known breeding grounds for al Qaeda.
Bush's State of the Union 2003 continued the march to war, with references to "mobile production facilities", Sarin Mustard VX gas, "38,000 liters" of Botulin toxin, and "advanced nuclear weapons sites". Despite his long record of fibs, Bush's credibility went virtually unquestioned by the major US media in the months leading up to the invasion.
The keynote speech in the administration's drive to war was delivered by Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN Security Council one month before the invasion. Seen as a lone administration moderate, and having publicly claimed to be against invasion a year earlier, Powell was perceived - nationally and internationally - as harder to disbelieve, making him the perfect Trojan Horse. Charge by charge the documentary showed that few of Powell's claims have panned out: the ties to al Qaeda have still been unproven, the mobile production facilities turned out to be hydrogen generation facilities, the "100 - 500 tons" of chemical weapons agent were never found, and the fabled "weapons of mass destruction" are still at large. (Powell didn't reprise the uranium in Africa story Bush had used in his State of the Union because he felt the evidence was lacking.) Powell's stress on the urgency of pre-emption has proven to be completely unfounded.
The documentary then jumped ahead to the post-invasion situation in Iraq, as day after day passed and no weapons of mass destruction were found, forcing fall girl Condoleeza Rice to go on tv and say "We made a mistake." Weapons inspector Hans Blix said (the administration was) "100 percent sure they had weapons, 0% sure of where they are."
As this segment of the documentary closed, President Bush sat with a foreign leader before members of the press, one of whom asked him if he thought the US inability to find WMDs would hurt America's credibility around the world. The artless dodger took on his trademark deer-in-the headlights look for a few seconds, then said "I'm not exactly sure what that means", to big audience laughs. As grim as much of the subject matter was, the sheer, at times clumsy mendacity of the Bush administration succeeded in providing many such moments of absurdist humor throughout the night.
Moving along, the documentary covered the Wilson affair. About a year before the invasion, and long before Bush and Cheney's repeated references to Saddam's nuclear program, Dick Cheney sent Joseph Wilson IV to Iraq to find WMDs. Joseph Wilson was a career diplomat who had worked for Bill Clinton and Bush Sr., and was a good friend of the latter. Wilson was sent over on the basis of a memorandum that allegedly showed the sale of yellowcake uranium (for use in nuclear weapons) from Niger to Iraq. When Wilson didn't find even remote evidence of the transaction having taken place, he returned to the US and reported his (lack of) findings to the State Department. After the invasion, in July 2003, Wilson recounted his trip in a now-famous op-ed for the New York Times; Wilson concluded by saying that we may have been taken to war on false pretenses. As a reward for speaking the truth as he had found it, Wilson's wife Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA officer was outed in a column by right-wing scribbler Robert Novak, who had received the information from a source inside the Bush administration. Much speculation points to Cheney's office as the source of the leak; if anyone is tried and convicted, they could face a felony for potentially endangering the safety of a member of American intelligence. The memorandum on which Wilson's search was predicated was later found to be a forgery, with several words wrong in French, days of the week that didn't match dates given, names of officials who weren't officials, and names of officials who had been out of government for years.
At its close, "Uncovered" included statements from various foreign policy careerists who said that the invasion of Iraq was a diversion from the war on terrorism that could make our relations with the people of the Middle East more tense and more violent. The film ended to loud applause.
During the intermissions, scenes from a homemade movie shot at the protest earlier in the day came on, showing a drum circle of 20 - 30 people in the background, while in the foreground directly in front of the camera people danced. Occasionally the camera broke away to the edges of the drum circle to catch some of the assembled messages - a stop sign that said 'Stop Bush', a sign that said 'He Lied, Thousands Died'. While the cinema verite rolled, the emcee again reminded people of the concession stand and the dartboard at the back, with a picture of Bush made up like a pig on it. There was also a public service announcement from a legal group supporting unencumbered freedom of assembly; a protester named Noah had been beaten up by the police, and a friend or relative was sought.
The intermission movie flicked off and on came a group of video shorts: three videos that did not place in the Moveon.org Bush in 30 Seconds contest, including a riotously funny send up of Bush (Lionel Richie) and Blair (Diana Ross) "singing" back and forth to each other in slow motion, mouthing the words to "Endless Love" while the song played over the top.
Next was a short by Eli Elliot, "Radical Teen Cheer", a short about a group of Mission high school Latinas called Radical Teen Cheer who travel around doing progressive cheers, and a short by Jeff Taylor/James Ficklin called "War Pigs" about Bechtel, the San Francisco-based corporation that plans to make a killing by commodifying Iraq's water supply. Tying into the theme of the night - Roasting the Pigs of War - a protest was shown in front of Bechtel's San Francisco office. As a man with a pig mask spoke into a microphone, a makeshift trough was set out filled with fake dollars. Eventually the sound cut out, and grunting noises came on over footage of suits walking along concerned (or oblivious), only to return to a baby innocently playing with the money, saying 'hi' to the camera. Bechtel was posited as a symbol of Bush's 'leave no defense contractor behind' modus vivendi, wherein highly profitable corporations get their mitts on Iraq's oil and water while 70% of Iraq is unemployed and the hospitals overflow.
"Gringothon"followed, a homemade movie from Greg Berger. Filmed in Nueva Guerra, "Gringothon" followed a spirited and naive Che Guavara t-shirt-wearing Caucasian-American in Mexico as he tried to raise money to help take Bush out of office and put him in front of an international tribunal. The ambitious gringo solicited people on buses, on the street, on the sidewalk. This was followed by a short called "A Mountain Has Been Taken" by Caroline Koebel that showed a claymation plant that sprouted up green as sunny 60's advertisement music came on, then withered as live testimony of the horrors on the ground in Iraq came on
Next up were two Lord of the Rings spoofs ("The Lord of the Rings in the Land of Free Trade" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Twin Tower Military Industrial Complex"). Over scenes from Lord of the Rings movies were English subtitles scripting out Gandof/Chomsky's battle with two of the most burgeoning, rarely discussed forces in the American and world landscape. Underlying message throughout: never give up, Frodo, no matter how bad things look.
Last in this series of shorts was a movie called "Homeland" (Jacob Bricca) that began in the suburbs, showing big gas-guzzling cars driving by an obese man riding his lawnmower across a big green lawn past a house with a seven-digit address. Drawing attention to the modern-day consumer culture, the short moved on past endless construction sights into a supermarket and long rows of every kind and color of needless consumer good into ads for the war, all of which morphed into a video game on a kid's tv screen, then back into empty car lots and empty supermarkets.
The second intermission came on, with more protest footage and more mostly ignored reminders that the concession stand had not been emptied.
When the show started up again, independent journalist Mark Brecke presented a series of slides that put a human face on the invasion. Brecke, who had been to Iraq and other countries in the region, began his presentation with an entry from Encyclopedia Britannica that pointed out that the people of Mesopotamia (now Iraq) used tools and grew crops while Europeans hunted in the woods for game and gathered berries and roots.
Brecke was embedded in the US military, who knew he was working on a book project. Many of the slides were of children; "the face of war is always different for children", said Brecke. Though Brecke couldn't go anywhere alone, curious children gravitated toward US military members as they walked through the streets on patrol or crawled along in their convoys of Humvees.
Along with the photographs were stories - of how Nazarea (a hotbed of resistance) was ransacked and looted by Saddam's policemen, of the time photographs showing Saddam's predilection for torture were found, of other evidence of evildoing by Saddam being bulldozed, of the ongoing repair of schools, hospitals, orphanages, and of the US military interpreter Mohammad, who was paid $30/month, the average wage in Iraq.
The soldiers on patrol thought Brecke, as a journalist, was making "$1,000/day and drove a sedan" and often borrowed his cellphone to call home. Many of the soldiers, from small towns across America, said they would never see the world the same way again. The cover of the book Brecke contributed to showed a picture of a young Iraqi girl in a hospital with shell shock, staring ahead fixedly. This picture "was the average Iraqi's response - no bandages, no blood."
The final intermission was just five minutes. Again we saw footage of the day's protest. A line of police officers fell into formation and ordered protesters out of the street and onto the sidewalk. The emcee made another pitch for the remaining hotdogs (regular hotdogs only, tofu hotdogs long since gone), and the dartboard at the back.
The last formal piece was "Weapons of Mass Deception", a work in progress by Mike Kavanagh. This 20-minute production (culled from 200 hours of raw material) was a collage of media snippets and overdubbed music, starting with a flashy MSNBC Countdown to Iraq tv graphic shown to the sultry machismo of James Bondlike music. Intermixed with music were well-timed news segments, including one in which a newscaster explained that (oh, by the way) Iraq had the second biggest oil reserves on the planet, which were easily and cheaply extractable. 90% of the reserves were unexplored, making the seizure of such reserves a boon that could help to stabilize oil prices, theoretically saving Bush the fate of Jimmy Carter, who paid the price for rising prices at the pump. Following was an SUV ad done to punk industrial music to emphasize destructive power, and a concise seminar called 'To Market a War". "To Market a War" listed three prerequisites for a successful media operation in war: 1) the iconic image; 2) a war theme song; and 3) a war hero. The iconic image was the statue of Saddam, and later the shot of a child running gleefully through the streets of Baghdad with the head of the statue on a leash. The war theme song was "Iraq and I Roll" by country singer Clint Black, a Clear Channel-friendly song that was instantly picked up and played repeatedly on right-wing radio. The war hero was Jessica Lynch, whose story was shown in its initial dramatic reportage, as we now know falsely, by Dan Rather and others. Throughout "Weapons", scenes from the movie "Wag the Dog"Â (in which a presidential candidate contrives a war in Albania to divert attention from a sex scandal) were mixed with footage of casualties and deaths in Iraq. "Weapons of Mass Destruction" closed with a Twilight Zone monologue that was numbingly prescient.
What remained of the audience filed outside, where they gathered for smokes and conversation. Satisfied to exhaustion by independent films of infinitely more creativity and depth than the effects-heavy beached whales that pass for entertainment in modern day America, we were reminded once again that raw capital and gimmicks are no match for the power of ideas.
© Dan Benbow, 2004