Saturday, October 7, 2006

Takeharu Watai's Little Birds provides sensitive window into human consequences of the Iraq War

"Don't cry, Daddy, we've become birds in heaven."- Takeharu Watai's Little Birds
The best and most empathetic global visual window on the American and British led war in Iraq has not been the work of an American or a British journalist, but a film by an award-winning thirty-five-year-old Japanese video journalist Watai Takeharu.

Watai, who wrote a book in Japanese with the same title, spent over a year filming his 2005 documentary film, Little Birds.

One of the Iraqis he follows in his narrative is Ali Saqban, whose three children died since the American invasion of Iraq. The title of Watai's film comes from the words on the gravestone, written by people who helped Saqban bury his children: "Don't cry, Daddy, we've become birds in heaven."

Watai allows the faces and voices of Iraqis, devastated by the war, and American soldiers, many whom are very young, poor, and don't know why they are in Iraq, to speak for themselves:
March 2003, before air-raids started, life in Baghdad was graced with the smiling faces and laughter of children.

Soon, the bombings started and have resulted in many deaths and injuries.

Takeharu Watai, the director was there when the U.S. Army entered Baghdad, and witnessed a woman standing in front of a U.S. tank and shouting, "How many children have you killed? Go to the hospital and see the people dying!"

At these words, Watai visited Thawra Hospital in Baghdad. There in the middle of the tragic mess, he met Ali Saqban, 32, whose daughter was dying. Saqban lost two elder brothers during the Iran-Iraq War, and was himself injured during the Kuwait invasion. Now he has lost three of his children by the U.S. entry into Iraq.

"I don't think people were created to kill people," he says as he kneels in front of his children's graves.

Hadeel, 12, lost her right eye by the cluster bomb, an inhuman weapon used by the U.S.A, and Ahmad his right hand.

By showing these families who are torn apart and hurt by the war, Watai questions the audiences in Japan and in the world as to the "significance" of the war.
"War is a disgusting word," Ali Saqban says at the end of the film.

Little Birds won the Human Rights Award at the 2005 Locarno International Film Festival and the 2005 Japan Conference of Journalists Grand Prize. The film was screened earlier this week at the Raindance Film Festival in London, and earlier this year at the Singapore International Film Festival and the Global Peace Film Festival in Beppu City, Japan. Last year, it was screened at the EBS International Documentary Festival (EIDF) in Seoul.

Watai has worked with Asia Press International, a news agency consisting of a group of independent video journalists, since 1998.

In February 2005, the journalist traveled on the 48th voyage of Peace Boat, a Japan-based international NGO that promotes peace, human rights, equal and sustainable development and respect for the environment.

The Peace Boat website has an interview which reflects Watai's clear-sighted and human-centered perspective on Iraq and war, focusing on those, including U.S. soldiers, caught in the middle of and paying the price of whatever this war was about:
I asked so many people, “When the air raids started, what did you do?”

They said that they couldn’t do anything. I really sympathized with them. At that time, if they opposed the war, it meant that they were fighting for Saddam. They didn’t like that.

One taxi driver said “I don’t want war, but I will not help Saddam, this is why I didn’t do anything”. During the Saddam regime, the people did not have a choice. Even now, they don’t have a choice. Two weeks before the war started, I entered Baghdad and I was very surprised at their lives. They were going to school, children were playing football, and people were in the markets. They were very optimistic. Now, they just pretend to be optimistic.

In Iraq, I think it is very difficult to generalize, because there are so many ethnic groups and ways of thinking. At that time, the people couldn’t do anything. If someone criticized Saddam, he would go to jail or be executed. But they don’t want war. They wanted the Saddam regime to be over, because he couldn’t do anything. Then the war started...

I met so many American soldiers in Iraq - Korean Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans. They were very young. There were a lot of students there, because in America, they can get scholarships if they enter the Army. Also, they can get green cards. That’s why a lot of young and poor people enter the army. I think there were few rich people – they’re very poor in the US army.

Also, they don’t understand why they are in Iraq. They say “to liberate the Iraqi people or help them”, but they are just saying that. It’s not from deep in their minds. I asked one guy, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction? Why can’t you find them?” He couldn’t answer. He said “you can find them with your camera”. What does that mean? They don’t understand the reason for the war.

I believe they also are victims. The army is like a bridge. One side is killing people, the other is being killed.
Watai adds unexpected information about the relationship between Iraq and Japan:
I was surprised that before, the Iraqi people loved Japan very much – more than any other country.

I have been to many countries and many people have knowledge of Japanese companies, but the Iraq people are very friendly to Japanese and trust them. That was before. But now, the impression of Japanese people is getting worse.

We have lost our good friends in Iraq because of this. Iraq is a very rich country, with rich culture, education and resources, but it has been destroyed by war.