We’ve heard it countless times over the past several months—in the media, from voters and from the presidential candidates themselves: One of the most important issues affecting the 2004 election will be the situation in Iraq. But what, exactly, is the current situation? As Americans grow more suspicious of an increasing media bias, moviemakers Eric Manes, Martin Kunert and Archie Drury went to the heart of the controversy—Iraq itself—to get the answers.
With 150 small digital cameras in tow, the team of producers traveled to Iraq, where they distributed these cameras to their “directors”—the Iraqis themselves, who were encouraged to document their everday lives and struggles for the cameras. The result was more than 400-hour video diary of life in a post-Saddam Iraq. Just days before its October 29th release (both theatrically and on DVD), producers Eric Manes and Martin Kunert spoke with MM about their hopes for Voices of Iraq in the face of November’s presidential election.
Jennifer Wood (MM): Voices of Iraq is truly a groundbreaking film—both in terms of its content and the process behind its production. What was your main mission in creating this film?
Eric Manes (EM): Our goal was simply to give the Iraqi people a voice. For years we had heard only the American media’s version of what Iraq and its people were like. We decided that since Iraq was such a major issue in the U.S., it was time to hear their story first-hand. Iraqis are a wonderfully diverse group of people who have been silenced for over 24 years, living in fear of Saddam Hussein and his regime. We realized we could finally give Iraqis a venue to freely share their lives, hopes and dreams with the rest of the world now that he was no longer in complete control of the country.
MM: From the beginning, had the plan always been to make this a story told by Iraqi citizens, or had you originally thought of going the more traditional documentary moviemaking route?
Martin Kunert (MK): We never considered the traditional route because we wanted to give a view of Iraq that was unavailable elsewhere.
MM: What was the biggest logistical challenge the making of this film posed?
EM: The largest logistical challenge was delivering cameras into Iraq, especially at the beginning of April when the borders were closed. Remarkably, we found that FedEx and DHL still delivered and most remarkably, our co-producer and Desert Storm veteran, Archie Drury, slipped into Iraq with a dozen cameras squeezed into his bags.
MM: How about the biggest political challenge?
MK: The biggest political challenge was ensuring that, despite the complex political leanings in the U.S. regarding Iraq, we stayed focused on the original concept of the film. Voices of Iraq is not about the viewpoint of the American government, the news media or the producers, but rather it’s about the perspective of the Iraqi people.
MM: Do you think this film would have been possible without the availability of digital technology?
EM: Not a chance. Innovations in technology enable innovations in filmmaking and storytelling. In this case, inexpensive, easy-to-use cameras were essential to the concept of Voices of Iraq. You can’t send 16mm Arriflex’s or shoulder-mounted Betacam cameras into Iraq and expect kids on the street to learn how to use them, and we certainly couldn’t afford to buy those cameras. Voices of Iraq would probably not have been possible even three years ago. Plus DV, if you’re careful with it, blows up nicely to 35mm. Other analog prosumer standards, like analog Hi8 or VHS, do not.
MM: What were the factors you weighed in deciding which cameras would be best?
MK: The factors were simple: inexpensive DV cameras that we could easily purchase. The other factor in choosing a camera was that it was easy to use and would feel intimate, allowing the subjects to feel comfortable while being filmed. Therefore, we looked for a small, point-and-shoot DV camera. The idea was to make Iraqis feel as if they were making a home movie—not a feature film.
MM:What kind of camera did you wind up using?
EM: We used single chip, GR-D30U JVC cameras, which you can buy used on the Net for around $230. Their image quality was excellent.
MM: What was the process of getting this film shot: How did you distribute the cameras? How many cameras did you distribute?
MK: Once the 150 cameras were in Iraq, Archie Drury distributed them. A chain of responsibility was created: Archie would give a camera to an Iraqi and would ask him or her to film and then pass the camera on to a friend. After that, the friend was asked to pass the camera on to another Iraqi. Tapes flowed back to us along this chain.
MM: What sort of training did you offer your "DPs"?
EM: Participants were given a simple guide, prompting them to interview the most significant people in their lives, which could be family members, friends, religious leaders—anybody. The guide also provided simple instructions on how to use the camera, for example not shaking it while filming and counting to 10 while focusing on an object.
We also tried to get multiple cameras to a group of people, like a family, and asked that they film simultaneously. This provided coverage for editing purposes.
MM: What was the biggest technical challenge that you faced in making the film in such a manner?
MK: Collecting, digitizing, logging, translating and backing up over 400 hours of video in a foreign language was a Herculean task. The media management (how one handles digitized video on hard disks) was complex, especially since we didn’t have a single storage device like an Avid Unity. We ended up buying multiple Firewire hard drives—LaCie Big Disks, which store 500 GB each—and duplicating digitized media for each of our two main Avid Express Pro editing workstations.
MM: What were some of the technical issues you didn’t think to troubleshoot ahead of time, but quickly learned were necessary?
MK: Firewire drives are not as reliable as SCSI, so we experienced hard disk crashes and loss of media. We ended up creating low-res copies of our media and backing them up on separate drives. The multiple copies of media became a mess, and the various bit depths (how many numbers are used to describe a sound wave) of the audio ended up causing havoc in the sound mix. The lesson learned from all these troubles: Next time we do a project of this scale, rent or buy an Avid Unity NetShare—a device which keeps a single copy of the media, in one place, and backs it up automatically.
MM: From conception to final cut, how long was the process of making this film?
EM: We came up with the idea in mid-March, cameras arrived in Iraq in mid-April, and we locked picture early October.
MM: What was the total budget and where were your expenses the greatest?
MK: Our budget came out to around $500,000. With inexpensive cameras and editing stations, the greatest expense was our post-production staff: translators and assistant editors. Second to that, the 35mm blow-up.
MM: How do you think the film would have been different if it had not been "directed" by the Iraqis themselves? Do you think that there would have been a greater degree of censorship in the stories that you were told?
EM: Westerners, not Iraqis, choosing what’s important to reveal about Iraq is a form of censorship. Without Iraqis as the directors, we would have seen Iraq and its people only through the filter of Western eyes. We certainly would not have had the access or the emotional intimacy that was captured in the film.
MM: In recent years, it would probably have been the case that you’d get a lot of pats on the back from distributors who were then unwilling to take on such a political/controversial topic. But with the success of movies like Fahrenheit 9/11, etc. all that seems to be changing. How quickly were you able to find distribution with this project?
MK: Getting a theatrical release for a documentary film is still rare. We lucked out in that our distributor, Magnolia Pictures, was eager to get the film in theaters before the presidential election. They wanted to take advantage of the election’s focus on Iraq to build interest in the film. So the time between finishing the film and acquiring distribution was about a week.
We were able to negotiate a deal for Voices of Iraq to be shown in 11 theaters across the U.S. on October 29th. The specific theaters are listed on our Website, www.VoicesOfIraq.com. Also on October 29th, Voices of Iraq DVDs will be available for rent through NetFlix and will be available to purchase on the Voices of Iraq Website.
MM: Mark Cuban, who is distributing the film, says "It’s the one film that EVERYONE should be required to see before they vote." How do you think–or hope–the film will affect the upcoming election?
EM: We hope the movie humanizes the Iraqi people and that before audiences vote they take the people of Iraq into consideration. How people vote is their choice. Regardless of who becomes president, we hope Americans learn that it is crucial we not abandon Iraq. Under Saddam, Iraqis lived in cruelty that reminded us of Nazi Germany. Now, the majority of Iraq wants democracy, but needs stability to achieve it. That’s where America’s commitment to Iraq comes in. We also hope people see the good sides and bad of America’s presence in Iraq.