Fascinating and often moving, "My Country, My Country" offers a perspective of the Iraq War not often gleaned by American audiences: that of the Iraqi people themselves. In so doing, this Academy Award-nominated documentary neither preaches nor lectures as it shows the eight months leading up to the January, 2005, elections of Iraq's national assembly.
At the heart of the film is Dr. Riyadh, a physician at a Baghdad free clinic. A devoted family man and father of six, he is also an apparent workaholic who spends considerable time tending to his patients, sometimes even giving them money. He is a candidate for district council, but also a loyal Sunni obligated to abide by his sect's boycott of the elections.
As the election nears, we follow the sober, bespectacled doctor as he works tirelessly to bring a semblance of stability to a nation torn apart by sectarian violence and an unpopular occupation. His commitment is astonishing. The Baghdad we glimpse in "My Country, My Country" is a city periodically rocked by mortar fire, where sirens always wail in the distance and televisions air never-ending video of car bombings.
Still, the film occasionally loses focus when it leaves Dr. Riyadh and checks in on a cast of others -- including U.S. Army officials and an Australian private-sector security specialist -- slogging through the mess of postwar Iraq. The movie does not lack ambition. Director Laura Poitras (who also produced, shot and edited) comes across several captivating scenes -- a carload of Kurdish men denounce Arabs, an American military officer is overcome by emotion when remembering two slain Iraqi interpreters -- but her documentary is at its best when observing Riyadh's wearying quest.
While there is much to admire here, "My Country, My Country" is ultimately less of a fully realized documentary than it is a string of occasionally stunning vignettes. If some sequences are all too fleeting, they're still likely to resonate -- such as when Dr. Riyadh comes across a 9-year-old detainee at Abu Ghraib prison or when a colleague of the doctor's negotiates for the release of his kidnapped son.
It all attests to an almost suffocating bleakness. As Dr. Riyadh exasperatedly tells one of the detainees at Abu Ghraib, "We are an occupied country with a puppet government. What do you expect?"
The quality of the picture, shown in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, is grainy and dimly lit -- as befits the raw power of this documentary.
Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, the sound is surprisingly bold and full. English subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired are also included.
Aside from a theatrical trailer, the only extra is an Abu Ghraib inspection conducted by the Baghdad city council in August, 2004, three months after the prisoner abuse scandal broke in the news media. Clocking in at nearly 14 minutes, the segment shows Dr. Riyadh interviewing some of the 2,300 Iraqi detainees then being held at the prison. It was here that documentarian Laura Poitras met Riyadh.
In broad strokes and with a refreshing lack of editorializing, "My Country, My Country" takes us from the streets of Baghdad to the mountains of northern Iraq. The documentary might lose focus on occasion, but that's a minor complaint. Filmmaker Laura Poitras captures moments of poignancy, heartbreak and -- toward film's end -- genuine hope.