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Andrew Berends’ The Blood of My Brother

by Michael Liss

by Michael Liss

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Andrew Berends' powerful documentary The Blood of My Brother tells the story of the war in Iraq from a perspective rarely seen in the U.S. – that of an Iraqi family grieving for its eldest son. After saving up for years in order to open a photography shop, on the night of its opening Ra'ad is killed by an American patrol while volunteering to guard the neighborhood mosque. The film follows those he left behind, focusing especially on his younger brother, who is left to provide for the family even as he’s tempted to seek revenge.

Featuring the kind of raw footage and intimate detail that doesn't show up on the news, Berends captures the effects of war on the innocent Iraqis caught in the middle of it. His hand-held camera work imbues a startling immediacy to the deep access he obtained.

The Blood of My Brother is the first of two films Berends shot while traveling in Iraq. It opened on June 30 at Cinema Village in New York, and will be screened throughout the summer in other cities across the U.S.

Michael Liss: So what made you think you could walk into Iraq with a camera and come out with a movie?

Andrew Berends: I wasn't sure if I could. My friend had already been there for a while, so I called him and said, “How do I get there?” He said take a plane to Amman and take a taxi to Baghdad and I'll meet you in Baghdad. So that's pretty much what I did.

ML: What made you want to go in the first place?

AB: Because this is an American war, but as Americans we can choose to keep it at a distance. Iraqi people don't have that choice. I wanted to go there and try to close that distance. Part of my approach in filming is to get as close as possible to the subject, to take people there in the theater. My ultimate belief is that if you close that distance, the fighting and killing becomes impossible. If you can see people as people, this kind of thing can't continue.

ML: How much preparation did you do before you went?

AB: Not much. Beyond just going there, I didn't really have a clear plan.

ML: What were conditions like once you arrived?

AB: I was nervous because I didn't know what the hell I was doing and all this stuff was happening. I got there one year after the invasion and it turned out to be an extremely interesting time, because things started to get bad and they kept getting worse and worse over the six months I was there. My first week in Baghdad was when four American contractors were killed in Fallujah, burned and hung from a bridge. Then the kidnappings started. Then the first battle in Fallujah and the first battle in Najaf, and the Abu Ghraib pictures came out, all within my first month. Things just sort of blew up and it was fascinating to be there.
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ML: How long did it take to find your story?

AB: I'd only been in Baghdad a week. I was nervous at first, not knowing what it was going to be, until I found myself in Kadhimiya, which is this Shia neighborhood in Baghdad with this huge mosque, and these guys saw me with the movie camera and they said, “We have a story for you.” They told me their friend had been killed the night before and told me the story. I felt like I didn't see one there because it seemed like it was finished, he was dead. But they said, “Come back tomorrow and we’ll take you to his family so you can film them grieving.” I remember being scared when they brought me to his family's house. I'm walking in the door like, their son got killed two days ago and I'm supposed to go in and film them? But they accepted me. I met his brother and mother and they started crying and telling what happened. I just sat their and filmed them for 45 minutes. I started to see that maybe there was a story beginning for them, about how to move forward after the tragedy.

ML: How did you continue to maintain access to them?

AB: I was in a lot of situations that posed different challenges in terms of access. But I actually found it in a lot of ways easier to work in a place like Iraq than I would in New York. Just because of a certain openness among the people there, less of a self-consciousness with the camera, less distrust –

ML: Even though you’re American?

AB: Yeah. I'm mean, they're people and they saw me as a person. With the family, a big part of it was them having this story that they wanted to share. They'd just experienced this tragedy and my being there was an opportunity for them to tell this story. So that was a good situation to be in.

ML: What kind of safety precautions did you take while in Iraq?

AB: Just treating people as people and interacting with them as human beings is to me actually the safest way to operate there. Some people ask, "Oh, did you have guards, did you have an armored car, did you have weapons?" To me, all those things would only increase my chances of being targeted. In a way, I took no safety precautions. I went around with an Iraqi driver/translator and his beat-up Oldsmobile.

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ML: Have you noticed a difference in the reaction to the film between European and American audiences?

AB: Not yet. It did really well in Amsterdam, and the U.S. premiere was at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the audiences are New Yorkers. So the response in both cases were similar, very positive. I don't know how it's going to play in other markets throughout the U.S.
Does the American audience care as much about an Iraqi family's tragedy as if they saw a similar film in which an American family goes through this? Even for myself, in some ways I can more easily identify with someone who is like me. When I was embedded for a week with the Army, I went around on a tank with a couple of guys, and a month later they got killed. In some ways that hit me harder than seeing Iraqi people get killed in front of me. So what is that, where does that come from? I don't know.
I didn't set out to make an anti-war film. I set out to make a film about what I could see and experience about the war. I didn't come into it with a specific message. Different people will probably take the film differently.

ML: You consider it to be anti-war?

AB: Probably. If that's the case, it’s because perhaps that's the truth. It's pretty difficult to make a film in a war zone that's pro-war if you paint an honest picture of it.

ML: With the amount of documentaries about this war coming out, does that make it easier to get seen or harder to stand out?

AB: It’s a mix. It's challenging in terms of the overall market for television broadcast, for theatrical. Considering the population in the U.S., how little room there is for programming of this type of film on television is shameful. You go to Sweden, with a tiny fraction of our population, and there's five channels, all of which have documentary strands. In the U.S. there's maybe five, with smaller strands. It's very limited here. It's tough to go up against mainstream news, which is so all over the place. I think it's a shame how little room there is for good documentary filmmaking.

ML: A lot of attention has been given to the success of a handful of recent documentaries. Has there been any trickle-down effect to emerging filmmakers?

AB: As successful as some seem to have been, some of those filmmakers didn't even make any money, and those are the success stories. One of the challenges is that there are many, many more people making documentaries, which is great. That's partly because of interest in it, and largely because of the affordable technology. Everybody can have an editing system and an affordable camera. It means there's a lot of crap being produced, but at the same time there are more good films being made because it's accessible to everybody. And that's a great thing. It makes it more challenging, but it means the films have to be better.

ML: You opened in New York the same weekend as one of the biggest movies of the summer. How’s it feel to go up against Superman?

AB: I've never opened in movie theaters before, so it's pretty cool. I don't mind going up against Superman. I'm psyched.

For more information, visit www.bloodofmybrother.com

 

Screenings around the country

Boston, Museum of Fine Arts - opens August 11, 2006

Santa Monica, CA, Laemmle - opens July 28, 2006

New York City, Cinema Village - opens June 30, 2006

 

 


Contributors

Andrew Berends is a documentary filmmaker and photographer. He spent six months working in Iraq to create two independent documentary films, The Blood of My Brother and When Adnan Comes Home. His most recent documentary film, Urk, was the International Documentary Association's Pare Lorentz Award nominee and also screened in competition at the Cinéma Du Réel International Documentary Film Festival in Paris. Berends' recent photography includes projects in Haiti dealing with sexual violence against girls. In New York, he has documented the conditions of underprivileged Brooklyn youth in housing projects and on public assistance.



Michael Liss works a day job, does business development and film programming for the Vail Film Festival and sometimes pretends he's writing a novel. He leaves the country as often as possible and the rest of the time is in New York.




Michael Liss' photo

Michael Liss works a day job, does business development and film programming for the Vail Film Festival and sometimes pretends he's writing a novel. He leaves the country as often as possible and the rest of the time is in New York.

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