Film-Forward Review: [THE BLOOD OF MY BROTHER]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

A wounded demonstator in Najaf
Photo: Andrew Berends

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Directed by & Director of Photography: Andrew Berends.
Edited by: Aaron Soffin.
Music by: Stephen Barton.
Released by: Lifesize Entertainment and Releasing.
Language: English & Arabic with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: USA/Iraq. 84 min. Not Rated.

This unsettling and frequently chilling look on a mourning Iraqi family has an immediacy that’s rare for a theatrical documentary. Filmed barely two years ago, the intensity from the first scene, where a mother visits her eldest son’s grave, doesn’t let up. Her son, Ra’ad al-Azawi, was killed guarding the holy mosque in Kadhimiya, a Shiite section of Baghdad. His family and the community blame American soldiers, and because he died defending the mosque, Ra’ad is praised as a sacred martyr at his funeral, attended by thousands.

Director Andrew Berends’ access to Ra’ad’s family and a group of insurgents is remarkable (over 120 journalists have died while covering the war). He also follows American soldiers patrolling the streets. Serendipitously, one patrol comes upon an abandoned market stall with a stash of weapons. Tellingly, the nearby vendors claim to know nothing about the arms dealers. And in another weapons search, soldiers break and enter into a family dwelling during the night. Blindfolded men are taken into custody during an arms bust as children sleep peacefully on the floor.

More so than in Gunner Palace or The War Tapes, an extended sequence – insurgents in Baghdad’s Sadr City evading an (presumably American) tank – gives a fuller picture of urban warfare, with women and children in harm’s way. How the director gained access to the insurgents, who at one point sing and dance in celebration, is not addressed. They are the followers of the Shiite cleric Sayid Moqtada al-Sadr, the spiritual leader of the Mehdi Army. At a rally, he exhorts “We had one dictator. Now we have a bunch of dictators.” And later imparts, “The most important thing for believers in God and Mohammed is to separate themselves from the enemies of God. The heart can’t bear double loyalty, and humans have only one heart. That’s why disloyalty is considered one of the biggest dangers to society.”

Watching the film is as though the country is unraveling before your eyes. In Najaf, a demonstration for peace led by an ayatollah, looked on by Iraqi police, ends in disarray; shots ring out and several demonstrators are wounded and at least one killed, but it’s unclear what exactly happened and who fired.

If the expansive film has a central focus it’s Ibrahim, Ra’ad’s younger brother, now the man of the house and running the photo shop that Ra’ad established. Lanky and awkward, he, nevertheless, serves as the film’s mouthpiece: “American people are not guilty, but when I see an American or a Jew, I want to kill him.”

This is cinema vérité, not an investigative exposé. Its focus is largely on this pocket of resisters. But even if you have been following events in the news, the film leaves questions as it does impressions. From whom was Ra’ad protecting the mosque, Sunni militias or other insurgents? The circumstances surrounding his death are equally cloudy (the press notes say it was accidental). With numerous interviews of Ibrahim and others, Berends had opportunities to probe deeper.

Because of the lack of background regarding the Mehdi Army and al-Sadr, this eye-opening film doesn’t offer as broad a look on the occupation as it could have. Just six days before Ra’ad’s death, the Mehdi Army led the first major armed confrontation between the Shiite community and occupation forces after al-Sadr’s newspaper had been banned and attempts had been made to arrest the cleric. And during the time of the filming – al-Sadr had ordered his followers to ceasefire unless in self-defense; this is also left unmentioned. Kent Turner
June 30, 2006



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