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A variant of what military leaders call "the fog of war" shrouds much of The Blood of My Brother, Andrew Berends's unsettling and uncensored documentary about the effects of the American occupation in Iraq. In the film's first scene, we behold a black-clad middle-aged Iraqi woman and her nineteen-year-old son grieving over a freshly laid gravestone in a Muslim cemetery that's full of freshly laid gravestones. From that point forward, the Brooklyn-born Berends seeks to explain the meaning of one young man's death -- not just for devastated family and friends in Baghdad, but in the larger context of the bloody Shia insurgency.
In truth, though, we learn very little about the dead man, Ra'ad al-Azawi. He was a portrait photographer who had just opened his own shop, the beloved eldest child of the Azawi family, and he was killed -- probably accidentally -- by three American bullets on the night of April 9, 2004, while standing his shift as a volunteer guard at the ancient mosque in Kadhimiya. But the details of Ra'ad's death remain murky, cloaked in conflicting rumors and half-baked accusations, and his politics -- if he had any -- are a total enigma. Still, the fog lifts dramatically on two major elements of this mysterious obituary. First, Ra'ad's surviving teenage brother, Ibrahim, is quickly radicalized by his death ("When I see Americans or Jews," he says, "I want revenge; when I see a burning tank, it makes me happy"), but his priority must be to provide for his mother and two sisters as the new head of the household. Second, the insurgency itself is clearly fueled by the same mass passion that drove the Viet Cong a generation ago.
Using a breadth of access the rather less adventurous U.S. TV networks don't have -- or don't want -- Berends provides intimate views of thousands of Muslims at prayer, lethal firefights in the battle-scarred streets of Sadr City, and the frightening, saber-rattling rallies of the militant cleric Sayid Moqtada al-Sadr's masked Mahdi Army. The filmmaker also includes the sacrificial slaughter of a sheep, which may or may not require a call to the symbolism police.
Tearing around the hottest districts of Baghdad in a beat-up Oldsmobile, Berends (who made the impressive fishing documentary Urk) and his intrepid crew evidently showed a disregard for their own safety that was equal to the fatalism of the most committed Islamic martyrs-in-the-making. The results are often shocking -- an up-close look at war in all of its stark violence and terrible ambiguity. Donald Rumsfeld and his underlings at the Pentagon might see a lot of Blood as "pro-terrorist" propaganda, if not outright treason, but it's a good bet that any U.S. grunt on the ground would call it reality -- from the smoking hulk of a downed Apache helicopter to the fire-blistered wounds of children in a Baghdad emergency ward, to the uneasy, language-impaired camaraderie of an American Army unit and a squad of Iraqi guardsmen about to embark on a hairy night mission in the city's dangerous al-Hurriyah neighborhood.
For their part, the American soldiers Berends interviews -- most of them just kids themselves, of course -- hold to the same kill-or-be-killed view we heard in Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland, but because these filmmakers were not embedded with any U.S. military unit, they were not fettered or filtered by the authorities. Like Deborah Scranton's The War Tapes, in which the director gave cameras to soldiers to chronicle their day-to-day struggles and yearnings, Berends's work has the raw, scary shimmer of real life -- and sudden death -- without spoon-feeding us a lot of political or social background on the ever-more-dubious U.S. mission in Iraq. Sometimes we feel just as confused by the tangle of motives and agendas in the war as the bewildered, bomb-weary Baghdad woman who says: "I don't know if the Americans are helping us or not. I don't know."
But Ibrahim al-Azawi, age nineteen, is pretty sure he knows. While his grieving mother, in a heartbreaking scene, tells us about a dream in which she caught a bird in her hand while another escaped to the sky -- a parable of her two sons -- Ibrahim is clearly less concerned with symbolism in the wake of his brother's death than with the vengeance of the Shia. "Maybe God is not satisfied with me," he says, coolly smoking a cigarette. "He didn't grant me martyrdom." In that moment, The Blood of My Brother transcends the impersonal body counts and bland abstractions that characterize most Western news dispatches about the war. In Ibrahim's voice we hear not just a depth of sorrow, but the irresistible tug of jihad, unsullied by the spin of a White House press secretary or a Fox News reporter. And that does not bode well for our future in the Middle East, no matter what your politics amount to.
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