'American Zeitgeist': Top Iraq Doc

For its sweep and complexity, best of grim new genre.

By Crawford Kilian 10 Oct 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian was born in New York City in 1941. He was raised in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and was educated at Columbia University (BA '62) and Simon Fraser University (MA '72). He served in the US Army from 1963 to 1965, and moved to Vancouver in 1967. He became a naturalized Canadian in 1973.

Crawford has published 21 books -- both fiction and non-fiction, and has written hundreds of articles. He taught at Vancouver City College in the late 1960s and was a professor at Capilano College from 1968 to 2008. Much of Crawford's writing for The Tyee deals with education issues in British Columbia, but he is also interested in books, online media, and environmental issues.

Reporting Beat: Education, health, and books

Crawford's Connection to BC: Though he was born in New York City, one of Crawford's favourite places is Sointula, a small town off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

Twitter: @crof

Website: H5N1

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David Frum defends role.

Dozens of books about terrorism, Iraq and the Bush administration have appeared since the beginning of the Iraq war over three years ago. Documentaries have proliferated also: Fahrenheit 9/11, Gunner Palace, Control Room, Beyond Good and Evil and Why We Fight.

This year's Vancouver International Film Festival has included what may be the greatest of such documentaries: American Zeitgeist: Crisis and Conscience in an Age of Terror. Writer-director Rob McGann clearly understands the conventions of this five-year-old genre, and has both respected them and gone beyond them.

Earlier "Iraq docs" have gained power by showing us individuals caught up in the struggle, whether in Iraq or in the U.S. The Al-Jazeera reporters try to cover the war in Baghdad while U.S. forces target them. Young GIs, living in one of Uday Hussein's palaces, party in Uday's swimming pool when not kicking in doors and arresting residents of humbler homes. American children learn how to shoot enemies in video games before moving on to similar games developed by the U.S. Army. The mother of a slain American soldier debates with another woman who is pro-war.

This personal approach is powerful, and millions of viewers have responded to it emotionally. McGann certainly gives us glimpses of individuals: a businessman sitting on a ledge near Ground Zero, covered in dust; an Arab firing a rocket-propelled grenade and then instantly shot dead.

But the overall intent of American Zeitgeist is not to make us feel for individuals. It wants to give us some perspective and to make us think about the vast movements that we as individuals have been caught up in.

America's bastard child

McGann's thesis is that al-Qaida is America's own bastard child, the direct result of U.S. funding of the mujahedeen who fought the Russians in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion of 1979. American dollars paid for the training, arming and deployment of fanatic Muslim splinter groups.

Their success legitimized them, attracting more and more supporters. When Afghanistan sank back into chaos with the departure of the Soviets, the sectarians eventually created the Taliban and imposed a brutal order.

This relatively long-term perspective is what makes American Zeitgeist worth watching. McGann makes it clear that 9-11 was not the start of the struggle, but a late development -- one that al-Qaida considered a defensive blow against an old enemy.

McGann backs this thesis with some formidable authorities: Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire; Richard A. Clarke, the boss of the U.S. anti-terrorism effort under Clinton and Bush; Eric S. Margolis, author of War at the Top of the World. They speak with knowledge and gravitas, as do many others who oppose the war.

But they don't speak alone. McGann also brings in plenty of pro-war advocates, including Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the strongest war supporter on the left; Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution; and David Frum, who used to write speeches for Bush.

Earlier Iraq docs would present such hawks (not to mention Bush and his cabinet members) in a bitterly ironic light. McGann does too. (It's almost impossible not to portray them ironically.) But he gives them plenty of time to make their case. They are highly articulate and passionately committed to their position.

Complex motives

The narrative ranges widely: from Afghanistan to 1990s America, from East Africa's embassy bombings to 9-11 and the return to Afghanistan before the fatal swing to Iraq. McGann uses al-Qaida video to show us the arguments offered by bin Laden and his supporters -- even the unpleasant and disturbing "video will" recorded by one of the 9-11 hijackers. They may not be quite as articulate as Hitchens and Clarke, but they aren't zombies. They have complex motives for their actions.

Any work that advances a genre makes us reconsider earlier examples. Michael Moore showed us not the falling towers, but the horrified faces of the onlookers. McGann uses the familiar images of the aircraft striking the towers, but for the most part they are in al-Qaida's videos -- images of triumph, not of tragedy. He shows the American side of the attack mostly in still photos, drawing us into the faces of the survivors.

Similarly, he gives us some horrifying footage of Iraqi civilian casualties, as other documentaries have done to contrast images of suffering with the sanitized images offered by U.S. networks. Much comes from Mexican news coverage, and the point is not just that we didn't get to see it. The real point is that the rest of the world did see it, and drew the appropriate conclusions.

The VIFF version of American Zeitgeist runs two hours and 20 minutes; speaking after a showing last week, McGann said the final release would be cut by 20 minutes. (It will be shown one more time, this Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. at Pacific Cinematheque.) He told the audience that his company is negotiating with distributors. But the film's website promises that the DVD will be available late this month, suggesting that its real audience will prefer to watch it at home or in classrooms.

Is it propaganda? Of course. But it is propaganda for clear thinking and careful analysis, not for the good of one side and the evil of the other. McGann respects his audience's intelligence, and invites us to think more critically about the origins of the conflict between the West and Islam. As we lose more Canadian soldiers in that conflict, we need to think about why they are there, and whether they should remain.

Crawford Kilian is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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