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Baghdad Blogger/Salam Pax--Video Reports from Iraq
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by Chris Parry

"A major letdown."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2004 VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: You can't always guarantee that what you see at a film festival will be something that you can't see somewhere else, in a better format, or for cheaper. At this year's Vancouver Fest, Silver City showed maybe three days before it opened in mainstream theaters, while in Denver they're showing Footloose, which you would have to have been born last Tuesday to have not seen at least six times on free to air TV (if you were so inclined). Baghdad Blogger is one of those festival screenings that I'd have preferred to have seen elsewhere, perhaps at home on a computer monitor, where I may have actually got something out of the experience. It's a series of episodes from Salax Pax's Baghdad-based video blog reporting on life since the Iraq War... which make a great website, but sadly do not make great cinema.

Salam Pax is an Iraqi architect - a bad one by his own admission - who decided once the internet got through after the fall of Saddam Hussein that he would detail his day to day life online through a video weblog (or blog as they have become inelegantly known of late). Admittedly, by putting his online diary into video format, Pax has become far more documentarian than simple blogger, which I guess means it makes sense that he would put together a festival-friendly anthology of his work. But while the subject matter is undeniably interesting, the tendency of Pax to steer the film towards himself rather than the ravages of war around him, quickly becomes hard to enjoy. It's not that he's a dislikable guy, I'm sure he'd be scintillating conversation at a small dinner party, but over an hour of him talking to the camera as if he's an authority on everything is just too much Pax for me.

And, quite simply, he's not an authority on everything. Pax makes no bones about his thoughts that the war against this country was a good thing, even before the war has ended. Saddam is gone, thus his blog is possible, but what of everything else that the US occupation has brought with it? Pax seems happy to take whatever is coming with a smile, even if it means those around him descend into civil war, because "anything is better than Saddam."

Nobody would question that - if your options are bombs from the US that kill 30,000 Iraqis over a year or torture chambers run by Saddam that torture to death the same number, I'll take the bombs and a quick death, thanks. But surely those aren't the only two options. And that's where Baghdad Blogger comes up really short.

What it does well is give you an on the ground, no censors required, no 'embedded journalism' bias of the street level scenario of a 'free Iraq'. As Pax attends a holy festival that includes the Shia beating themselves with chains and whips until they're a bloody mess, his bemusement at what is taking place in front of him is clear, but he puts aside his eye rolling for long enough to tell us why this self-mutilation is taking place. Certainly it's tough to watch by western standards, but ritual self abuse for the purposes of religious remembrance is not exactly a Shia Muslim phenomenon. It has been going on for centuries, in every religion from Catholicism to the spiritualism practiced by Native Americans.

What makes this brand particularly notable is that it is performed by people who might otherwise be bankers, teachers, lawyers, or even bad architects. And when the festival of bloodletting is over, those people go back to their normal lives, which consist of waiting for the electricity to come back on, and figuring out which liquor store is open this week, despite the regular acts of violence against the owners.

Iraq is not a land filled with hatred of the west and depraved animals who want to eat your young, and if there's something good to come out of Baghdad Blogger, the evidence that proves that notion is it. Pax is a guy you might expect to see walking down Main Street in any city in America; a jolly guy with fine English who has an opinion on everything and wants the world to know what it is. that he's found a way to share that opinion is commendable, especially considering where he is in the world. However, when it comes right down to brass tacks, his is just not that interesting an opinion, and people who may have an opinion that is contrary to his own are given short shrift.

Clearly Pax is living a good life in Baghdad. He has a home that he designed himself, enough money in his pocket to bujy booze, a nice SUV to drive - but is this the honest to goodness norm of someone eeking out an existence in Baghdad? Pax is happy the Americans are there, because presumably he's not at risk of being thrown into Abu Ghraib, but what of those that are? That's the documentary I wanted to see. and this aint it.

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originally posted: 10/21/04 15:18:19
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/24/06 Rob Good to see a different view point 4 stars
10/08/04 Ninja Sheldon Great diary with personal reflections from inside Iraq 4 stars
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Directed by
  Salam Pax

Written by
  Salam Pax


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