British filmmaker John Pilger's blistering critique of the ongoing UN sanctions against Iraq, Paying The Price: Killing The Children Of Iraq, was shown on commercial television (ITV) in Britain on March 6. The film was reviewed in no fewer than 15 publications and seen by millions of people; causing something of a minor uproar.
An uproar whose waves have not yet been heard on this side of the Atlantic, though it's crucially important for them (sooner than later) to be.
The film painstakingly details the horrifying result of a decade of sanctions (coupled with repeated Anglo-American airstrikes) upon the people and physical infrastructure of Iraq: over a million killed, 4,000 children killed every month, chronic malnutrition, environmental catastrophe. Pilger doesn't mince words, laying culpability squarely upon the shoulders of the architects of the policy in Washington and London.
Apart from (or perhaps, because of) Pilger's unswaying integrity, the film has three principle assets, each serving the other incredibly effectively; so that in combination, it adds up to a corkingly good (not to mention important) picture.
First is the use of the medium to make its point. The film is masterfully edited, sequenced, and paced. While South End Press has just released an excellent anthology entitled Iraq Under Siege, which covers essentially the same ground, but in greater detail (and which includes a contribution from Pilger), printed words (including this hopelessly inadequate review) don't seem to be able to deliver quite so well as sounds and images.
The movie opens, for example, with the reassuring intonations of George Bush, Sr. and Tony Blair each insisting that "we" have "no quarrel" with "the people of Iraq" while onscreen are seen the dead, mutilated, and deformed bodies of these same people.
Pilger tells the story by deftly and convincingly weaving and intercutting eyewitness and expert testimonies, historical and contextual footage, shots from the "halls of power", and scenes of the terrifying American and British implements of warfare with scenes from the horrible reality of daily life in Iraq. These include a tour of a hospital ward with an Iraqi pediatrician (where easily treatable diseases and conditions are killing children due to the lack of basic medicines); a classroom with no desks, where the children sit on bricks to escape the sewage that flows into the room (Iraq's water-treatment plants have been destroyed by bombs, and replacement parts are "on hold" because of their supposed "dual-use" nature); a remote northern village, recently bombed into oblivion; an Iraqi cancer ward, where a beleaguered doctor swats away flies (the Iraqis have been unable to clean up the contamination caused by the "Allies"' use of Depleted Uranium during the Gulf War, causing one expert to estimate that half the population will potentially contract the disease); a streetside bazaar, where Iraqis are forced to sell off their most valued possessions in order to attempt to survive.
The second asset is the interviews themselves. For a 75-minute feature, the breadth of persons interviewed is, quite simply, astounding.
Pilger takes Denis Halliday -- who had, in the Autumn of 1998, resigned in protest as the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator in charge of administering the "oil-for-food" programme in Iraq -- back to Iraq. Halliday visits a child whose life he'd saved by personally violating the sanctions. He declares it "a monstrous situation", accuses the West of genocide (he elaborates on this particular charge in an excellent recent interview with David Edwards), and insists that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair "should be here with us" to witness the destruction wrought by their policies.
Halliday's successor, Hans von Sponeck who -- along with the UN's World Food Program representative in Iraq, Jutta Burghardt -- also resigned in protest (Pilger declares that "the UN has not known a rebellion like this"), is interviewed just a few weeks after his February 13 resignation. He implores: "Discussion of how Iraq should or should not behave should not be carried out upon the backs of the civilian population."
Forty-five minutes into the picture, after much exposure to official blather about "weapons of mass destruction", we see Scott Ritter, UN Weapons Inspector from 1991-1998 emphatically stating: "If I had to quantify Iraq's threat, in terms of 'weapons of mass destruction', the real threat is: zero. None." Then: "Does Iraq have a chemical weapons program today? No. Does Iraq have a long-range ballistic missiles program today? No. Nuclear? No. Biological? No. Is Iraq qualitatively disarmed? Yes."
In scenes that must be seen to be believed, Pilger slings one bravura hardball after another at two sanctions apologists, eliciting blatant falsehoods from U.S. State Department Spokesman James Rubin (who comes across as nothing less than an ogre) and reducing U.N. Sanctions Committee Chairman Peter van Walsum to bewildered yammering.
The only two people to refuse interviews for the piece were Saddam Hussein, and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. The latter, according to Pilger, refused to appear in a film with "dying babies", then demanded special treatment in the form of an exclusive screening followed by a ten-minute uncut contribution at the end. "In other words" laments Pilger, "they wanted editorial control. Is that how 'accountability' in a democracy works, these days? What is the British government frightened of? What have they got to hide?"
The film's third great asset is that, while always keeping sight of and referring back to its preeminent point -- that innocent civilians by the hundreds of thousands, a great many of them children not even yet born when Iraq invaded Kuwait, are being made to suffer for the (both purported and real) sins of a dictator over whom they've no control -- it takes the time to explain the jumble of factors which have contributed to the evolution of the current ghastly situation. Pilger covers the British creation of Iraq in its own image; the Washington-approved overthrow of the nationalist regime, which event ultimately resulted in bringing Saddam to power; the arming of Iraq (including with "weapons of mass destruction") by the United States throughout the '80s; the U.S. betrayal of the popular uprising within Iraq following the Gulf War (subject of the very good recent movie Three Kings); the tenfold increase in cancer mortalities brought on by the use of Depleted Uranium in the Gulf War; and the latest bombing phase (dubbed the "un-war" by the American press), which, Pilger reminds us, "has no basis in law, and is not approved by the UN," but whose 24,000 combat missions between May of 1998 and January of 2000 nearly equaled the number of bombs dropped by NATO last year over Yugoslavia. This context not only helps to bring a much-needed wider understanding of the situation, but also dispels many of the myths propagated by the sanctions-masters.
Pilger ends the film, standing inside the United Nations, by asking, "Do the representatives of the powerful, who sit here in the Security Council, ever think beyond their so-called 'interests' (and maneuvers), and about their victims: small children dying needlessly, half a world away? And do those politicians, who tell us about their 'ethical' policies and 'moral' crusades, ever ask the question: by whose divine right do they punish 21 million people for the misconduct of a dictator? 'We think the price is worth it,' says Madeleine Albright. No, it is not. And it never will be. And it's time we reclaimed the United Nations.
"While you've been watching this film, countless children have died silently in Iraq. How many more will die before the silence is broken?"
While Paying The Price is courageous, vital journalism, if you're reading this in Eat the State!, you're probably already well-aware of, and strongly opposed to, the sanctions. Our crucially important task now is to widen the circle of dissent. To make this a mainstream issue.
To that end, both Paying The Price and Iraq Under Siege are available from Citizens Concerned For The People Of Iraq. (See its resource list.) Get these resources into the hands of friends and relatives. Disseminate copies of EPIC's Talking Points On Iraq. Hold screenings of the film in your neighborhood.
Hans von Sponeck, while he was still working in Iraq, estimated that it would take ten years after the lifting of the sanctions for Iraq to return to its pre-Gulf War standard of living. It's long past time to begin healing the wounds. But first we need to stop pouring salt into them.
ETS! is attempting to organize a benefit screening of Paying the Price in the Seattle area. Watch for details soon!
Citizens Concerned For The People Of Iraq meets the third Saturday of every month at 3:00 PM at University Baptist Church, which is located at the corner of 47th and 12th in the U-District. To be added to its mailing list for notification of upcoming actions and events: send them an e-mail, call (206) 789-5565, or write CCPI, c/o WWFOR, 225 N 70th St., Seattle WA 98103.