Japanese journalist’s movie on Iraq war screened in U.S.

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

A Japanese documentary presenting the war in Iraq from the viewpoint of people in Baghdad was screened in major U.S. cities recently, showing Americans not only the casualties among U.S. soldiers but also those among ordinary Iraqis.

“Little Birds,” produced in 2005 by prizewinning freelance journalist Takeharu Watai, drew audiences of about 100 people to eight screening sites in San Francisco, Austin, Texas, Chicago and New York between late January and early February, he said.

The screening sites included the University of Chicago, the University of Texas and Cornell University.

“I tried to depict the devastation caused by airstrikes and how attacks with cluster bombs cruelly involved ordinary Iraqis,” said the 35-year-old Watai, who attended the screenings for talks with the audience. “And such scenes seemed to be quite new to U.S. citizens.

“They told me after seeing the film that I should show it to Congress and that (President George W.) Bush should watch it,” he said after returning to Japan.

The film, shot during the1 1/2-year period starting in March 2003 when the U.S. launched the war, features three people — Ali Saqban, 34, who lost his three children during the attack on Baghdad; Hadeel Kadem, 14, who was injured in the right eye by a cluster bomb; and 15-year-old Ahmed Fenjan, who lost his right hand.

Watai also turned his camera on U.S. soldiers in Baghdad, who said it cannot be helped if ordinary citizens are killed during fighting.

Inquiries about the film from the U.S. have increased since around last summer, eventually enabling Watai to show the film there.

“I believe it was when skeptical voices over the war on Iraq gradually grew prior to the midterm elections in November,” he said.

Underlining his comments, the midterms saw Democrats win control of Congress after bashing Bush and his fellow Republicans over their Iraq policy.

“Little Birds” has been screened at some 250 venues in Japan so far, drawing more than 50,000 people, and it has been shown in Asia and Europe, including South Korea, Britain and Switzerland. But Watai said, “I was deeply moved that the film was finally screened in the United States for the first time since its release two years ago.”

Akihiro Nonaka, a representative of Asia Press International, a group of freelance video journalists that Watai belongs to, said, “Growth in antiwar momentum in the United States contributed to realizing the screenings of ‘Little Birds’ there.”

Watai said he was often asked in the U.S. if he will make a sequel, but he said that would be extremely difficult now, given the further deterioration in security in Iraq.

He visited Baghdad last March and was reunited with Saqban and Hadeel, both of whom still face hardships caused by the war.

“Fragments of cluster bomb still remain deep in Hadeel’s eye, and she was wearing mourning dress because her uncle had been killed one week before our reunion,” he said.

Saqban, who had already lost his two older brothers in the war between Iraq and Iran, witnessed the murder of his younger brother last year.

“I’m planning to visit Baghdad again next month, but I’m not sure if I can call on their homes, which are located in dangerous areas,” Watai said.

He launched his career as a journalist in 1997 and has covered a variety of topics worldwide, including East Timor’s independence struggle and the war in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Since the start of the war on Iraq, he has contributed to newspapers and magazines while broadcasting live during air raids in Baghdad for TV news programs, receiving the 2003 Vaughn-Uyeda Memorial Prize.

Watai’s attention is now on the Self-Defense Forces.

“During the question-and-answer sessions after screening my film in the United States, I stressed the need for U.S. citizens to know what their military has done in Iraq, as it seemed to me that even those who have doubts over the war care about the death toll of U.S. soldiers, rather than turning their eyes to casualties of ordinary Iraqis,” he said.

“But then I was asked by the audiences about what Japanese troops have done in Iraq.

“Overseas deployments of the SDF will increase from now, and I believe we have to keep close watch on their activities,” Watai said.

On the future of independent video journalists, Nonaka, who is also a lecturer at several colleges and universities, including Waseda University in Tokyo, said, “Our chances of getting works published will expand as we can present them not only at movie theaters and on television programs, but also on the Internet.

“A lot of people now seem to think that anybody with a video camera can be a video journalist,” he said. “But a person really needs experience as a journalist to survive in this world.”