Iraq in their Stories: Meet Two of the 2012 MacArthur “Genius” Fellows

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Every year the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation gives out $500,000 “no-strings-attached” grants, commonly known as “genius grants”, to a small group of people. These Fellows are described as demonstrating “creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future.”  Two of the 23 MacArthur Fellows for 2012 have been recognized for their first hand storytelling in Iraq.

Laura Poitras

The first is documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Her recent works have been part of a trilogy documenting post 9/11 America. It was her 2006 Oscar nominated film on Iraq called My Country, My Country, that really caught our attention. She sought not just to document the Iraq War, but to portray the Iraqi perspective of what was happening. In 2005, she traveled without a film crew to Adhamiyah, a suburb of Baghdad, where she  lived for the next 8 months. The film chronicled the months leading up to Iraq’s first elections in January 2005. The film focused on Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni political candidate from the Iraqi Islamic Party, and his family. [quote align=”right” width=”50%”]“I anticipated that the film would focus on the U.S. presence in Iraq, … But I quickly realized I couldn’t tell a meaningful story from that perspective only. I needed to have an Iraqi perspective.”[/quote]

The film highlights contradictions between how American media was typically portraying Iraq, particularly the elections, and how the Iraqis were experiencing it. It was this latter part  that lead EPIC to interview her for the Ground Truth Project. She explained how she did not seek to take a side politically, but rather she wanted to challenge both sides of the political debate to think about Iraq from the perspective of those living there.

David Finkle

The other Fellow is David Finkle, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and reporter for the Washington Post. He has covered everything from refugees in Kosovo to democracy in Yemen with a technique described as “finely honed methods of immersion reporting” by The MacArthur Foundation. It is his book The Good Soldiers (2009) that particularly caught our attention. In 2007, Finkle embedded with the “2-16” U.S. infantry battalion deployed to Rustamiya on the outskirts of Baghdad as part of the “surge”. His book is a gripping account of what it was really like to be in one of the fiercest areas of combat that year.

Like Poitras, Finkle did not seek to be politically skewed. It was not a pro- or anti-surge book. He believed that two wars were being fought, one over policy and spending here in America, and the other actually in Iraq with blood and sweat. He felt the latter was not being given enough justice in the media, and that his immersion style coverage could shed some light. Instead of writing another polemic book, Finkle chose to chronicle the daily lives of the soldiers from the 2-16. The result is a powerful book about the reality of a soldier’s life outside the “Green Zone”.

Poitras knew the story of Dr. Riyadh would fit into a grander context of the war. “I knew immediately that this man’s story would capture something larger about the meaning and implications of this war,” she said in a letter to viewers. These works on Iraq are stories that elucidate a much larger picture through the experiences of small groups who truly lived it. Finkle’s story of one battalion shows us how far apart the media coverage here in America and the harsh reality for troops on the ground.

We are given an important reminder by works from authors, filmmakers, and journalists such as these two: Iraq still matters. The war has all but gone from the media and active consciousness of most Americans. These stories are about actual and specific people in Iraq, and their journeys continue. Iraqis will go on with their lives long after the last American troops come home. Veterans will have scars and memories of the war long after they have left. The MacArthur grants go to those who have “potential to make important contributions in the future”. Just as these two Fellows have more stories to write, let us not forget the stories of Iraq have not been finished.