THEY MET THE RESISTANCE
by Mike Ferner
On one of those beautiful, fall Sunday mornings that can make you feel all is right with the world, filmmakers Molly Bingham and Steve Connors discussed their new documentary about Iraqis fighting the U.S. occupation, “Meeting Resistance,” 84 minutes of unflinching wallop destined to unhinge the way millions of Americans see their country’s role in the world.
In May 2003, the same month that George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier off California declaring “Mission Accomplished,” and a month after Iraqis began organizing a grassroots armed resistance, Bingham, was on assignment in Baghdad’s Adhamiya district, hot on the trail of the last sighting of Saddam Hussein.
While there, the 39 year-old photojournalist got a tour of the largest Sunni mosque in Baghdad, named after the seventh century imam, Abu Hanifa. Bingham recalled that, as she drove away from the mosque, her translator mentioned that one of the men they’d just met said he was with the resistance. She filed this away in the back of her mind.
Before returning to the U.S. the next month, Bingham watched news reports, trying unsuccessfully to find out who was beginning to violently oppose the U.S. occupation and why. She talked with a photographer-colleague, Steve Connors, a former British Army MP, who had observed the same lack of coverage.
Between them they had 33 years experience covering conflict zones and decided to collaborate on reporting what till now has been the most visibly under-reported story of the Iraq war. By August they were back in Iraq for another 10 months, Connors to film and Bingham to write.
“This film is seen as somehow really radical,” the 48 year-old Connors said. “I’ve covered 10 conflicts and this is the first time I’ve heard it’s radical to cover the other side. As a German friend of mine asked, ‘Americans consider this news?’”
Bingham added, “It’s just a really important story. If your work is covering conflict, it’s just what you do. You cover both sides, or in some cases three or four sides.”
“Imagine if all the reporting from Chechnya was done through Russia’s point of view,” Connors interjected, “Or if all the news about Palestine came through Israel? In broader terms it’s a ridiculous notion.”
“We still apply a healthy dose of journalistic skepticism,” Bingham said. “We didn’t take at face value everything we were told. That’s why when people say to us, ‘This is biased, it only presents one side,’ we say yes, it does only present one side but it’s as honest as we can get. Most of the time we’re bombarded by one-sided coverage from the U.S. point of view.” Finished Connors, “Even including who from the other side gets quoted.”
One example of how much difference perspective makes, Connors said, can be as simple as the usage of the term “Sunni triangle.”
“I never heard that term from an Iraqi. There are many Sunnis living there, but that area is majority Shia, so Iraqis would never call it that. It’s another example of how all our news comes from the lens of the military.”
“Yes. America,” Connors quickly answered when asked if the pair had a particular audience in mind when they made “Meeting Resistance.” Added Bingham, “This is basic journalism. We want to make it available to whoever can get their hands on it.”
One audience the film was made available to was a roomful of active duty soldiers, officers and enlisted, in Baghdad earlier this month. ABC News was there and asked two young soldiers who patrol Baghdad nearly every day with the Third Infantry Division, what they thought after seeing the documentary.
Sgt. Mike Kelley told ABC, “When you try to be compassionate and see things from their point of view, this is sort of reinforcing that, saying yeah, this really is how they feel. They’re normal people and they’re pissed off because we’re here and we’re not welcome.”
Added Specialist Travis Barnes, “We just don’t know all the rich details that make these people up and tell us who they are and why they behave the way they behave, and their history. It’s stuff we need to know.”
One thing that surprised the filmmakers as they were in the midst of their project was how quickly a decentralized resistance developed against the occupation.
Bingham recalled that, “We didn’t know what to expect at all, but what we found was that the vast majority of people we spoke with didn’t wait to see how the administration of Baghdad was going to go. They just saw they were being occupied and that occupation required a response. Most of the people we interviewed were organizing within a week (of the fall of the Saddam Hussein government in early April, 2003), finding people to work with.”
“None of these people required leadership,” Connors submitted. “No one told them what to do; they did it as an act of personal conscience. And if you follow that line of thought you can see that a leader in that situation is simply someone who has a few more skills than you do. If, after a while, he veers off from opposing the occupation he might get killed, or in some fashion you settle with him and get another leader. In a strange way, it’s almost democratic.”
One factor that may explain the relative quickness of the Sunni resistance, Bingham surmised, was that “Sunnis have more of what we would call a ‘Protestant’ view of their religion. They knew they were right because of their individual interpretation of the Koran; whereas the Shia have a more Catholic relationship with God, with a worldly spiritual leader who interprets the Koran for them.”
Both journalists acknowledged that the process of making their seminal film left its mark on them.
“It’s given me a sense of empowerment,” Connors offered. “There are of course many difficulties – raising money and all that, but we’ve done it all without the resources of a major corporation. To be at as many screenings as we can to answer questions, night after night, is one way of demonstrating ‘We are not a corporation…here’s what we found, take it or leave it.’ Theoretically, you always know you can do that, but to actually do it and go up against all established thought, that’s strengthening.”
Bingham observed that she learned how much of a challenge a project like this is and how important it is to have someone to work with who feels just as strongly.
“We’ve been called intrepid, insistent and dogged,” the Louisville, Kentucky native explained. “When you cover conflict, especially when your country is involved, giving up is unacceptable. But if I was doing this by myself I think I would have given up.”
She added that “To see how our policies are carried out overseas; to be on the sharp end of that, you get a very different view of how we’re perceived…and how I perceived my own country. You know, the myth of the democratic and free America is somewhat real on some level, but when you are faced with the hypocrisy of our actions in light of those values, it’s a really tough thing to reconcile. I found I was trying to hold the both of those realities together or consider perhaps one may not be true. It truly challenges your core beliefs.”
An example of that was when a heckler in New York tried to put her into a corner by demanding to know if she was “an American or a journalist?” “If you’re gonna make me choose,” Bingham answered him, “I’d say ‘a journalist.’”
Asked if she would have answered that way a few years ago, she thought a moment and replied, “Yes, but not as quickly.”
Her collaborator interjected, “Six years ago that question would never have been asked. Now certainly, we’ve heard allegations of treason.”
Considering another project is premature, Connors explained. “We feel committed to getting this film to where the discussions we have after each screening are happening all over the country. Then we can feel like we can take a rest and look at another project.”
Bingham concluded by looking beyond the particular message of “Meeting Resistance.” “This film is clearly about Iraq; it is clearly shaped by the culture, religion and history of Iraq. But it is also a film about the human condition under occupation as seen through this history…we shouldn’t be surprised.”
Ferner is a freelance writer from Ohio. Visit his site at http://www.mikeferner.org/