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Little Birds: A Devastating Window on the War

by Gregory Elich Friday, Aug. 18, 2006 at 9:00 AM

Powerful documentary on Iraq war from the perspective of Iraqi citizens


by Gregory Elich

At a time when the Iraq war continues to be a defining issue on the American

scene, it is ironic that the most powerful and uncompromising documentary on

the subject remains almost entirely unknown and unseen in this country. It

took Japanese filmmaker Takeharu Watai a year and a half to film more than

123 hours of footage in Iraq, which he managed to edit down to two

unforgettable hours. The result is the stunning Little Birds, which plunges

the viewer into the middle of the war, in all its sorrow and horror, and

never lets up.

The film opens on the streets of Baghdad, just days before the war. Daily

life appears ordinary on the surface, but this is belied by an underlying

tension as Iraqis express their thoughts on the impending assault.

It is not long before bombs and missiles are raining down on Baghdad, and

the violence is all the more shocking for the scenes of normality that

preceded it. In contrast to the sanitized images the Western public has

been fed, this documentary takes an unflinching view of the war. Homes are

destroyed, civilians are torn apart by bombs, and blood is spattered

everywhere. A man opens a shed, pointing to the bodies within, and bitterly

comments, "So these are the weapons of mass destruction." As flies swarm

over the bodies, he asks, "Are they weapons of mass destruction? Is it a

biochemical weapon? Why?"

U.S. tanks and vehicles enter Baghdad, and a spunky young woman confronts

the soldiers by demanding, "How many children have you killed today?" This

woman, who was a member of the Human Shields, tells the soldiers that she

was there as a peacemaker. One soldier insists that they are the

peacemakers, and in disbelief the woman responds, "You're a peacemaker?

When you kill these innocent children? That's a peacemaker? Have you been

to the hospitals? Have you actually had a look at the people in the

hospitals, dying and dead?"

In the next moment, the camera is racing into Thawra Hospital and turns into

a room where we are confronted with scenes of such devastating intensity

that it is almost unbearable to watch. In this, perhaps the most

emotionally wrenching scene I have ever witnessed on film, the criminality

of the war is there for all to see, among the dead, the dying, and their

grief-stricken relatives.

It is in this hospital that we first meet Ali Saqban, in his blood soaked

shirt, as he vainly tries to aid his dying daughter, five-year-old Shahad.

Two of his children had already been killed in an American air strike on his

home earlier in the day, and Shahad would not long survive. Ali is one of

main characters whose lives the film follows in the months after the

invasion. He painfully struggles to regain some sense of normality in his

life despite extraordinarily tragic circumstances. The film is richer for

the time spent on the daily lives of ordinary Iraqis, and we begin to see

the war through their eyes.

We are introduced to victims of American cluster bomb attacks, including a

young girl with shrapnel embedded in an eye. "We don't kill innocent

people," insists an American soldier at one point in the film, but

everywhere the evidence contradicts him. Cluster bombs, anti-personnel in

nature, could have no other result than to kill innocent people, dropped as

they were in residential neighborhoods.

Contrary to claims made by the Bush Administration that Iraqi civilians

would greet American troops as liberators, we instead see tanks and vehicles

rolling down deserted Baghdad streets, as residents nervously watch from

their windows. Later, the film takes us to several mass demonstrations in

opposition to occupation, in which the sweeping passion of the people's

anger and outrage is only magnified by the death and destruction we have


It is interesting to observe the comments by U.S. soldiers. There are the

true believers, parroting the pro-war line, but others, sensitive enough to

recognize that reality is at variance with it, are clearly uncomfortable

with the filmmaker's direct questions. "They don't understand why they are

in Iraq," explained Watai in an interview. "They say 'to liberate the Iraqi

people or help them,' but they are just saying that. It's not from deep in

their minds."

"War is a disgusting word," Ali Saqban says near the end of the film in a

touching and eloquent pouring forth of his thoughts. We yearn to see Ali

and the others live again in peace, but the striking final scene jolts us

back to the realization that the Iraqi people must continue to endure the

hell brought to them by the Western powers for a long time to come.

American documentaries tend to be more interested in telling us about

Americans in Iraq and informing us of what we already know. Watai, however,

has a more empathetic approach, forcing us to acknowledge what the war has

done to the Iraqi people. As a result, we discover far more about the war

and the disaster it has wrought on the society. The filmmaker had

confidence enough in his material to forgo music and narration, and indeed,

none was needed. Little Birds is a film of such power that it leaves its

audience speechless at the end.

It is a shame that this brilliant documentary remains without distribution

in the U.S., and one wonders whether it really is true that Americans only

want to watch films about themselves. Little Birds ought to be required

viewing for anyone still clinging to the notion of war as a selfless act of

heroic benevolence. For those of us fortunate enough to have seen it, this

is a film that long haunts the memory.

Gregory Elich is the author of Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem, and

the Pursuit of Profit.

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