Meeting Resistance is an unprecedented new documentary that goes deep into the heart of the insurgency against American forces in Iraq. Over the course of ten months, journalists Steve Connors and Molly Bingham interviewed ten anonymous members of the resistance centered in the al-Adamiya neighborhood of Baghdad. Through candid interviews with the diverse members of the insurgency, the film calls into question many of the official myths about the Iraqi resistance promoted in the western press and lays bare the complex psychological, political, and religious motivations of the diverse groups and individuals which began organizing resistance cells almost immediately after the fall of Baghdad. I had a chance to speak with Steve Connors and Molly Bingham after the film’s world premier at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last weekend.
To begin, could you please describe how you began reporting in Iraq?
Molly Bingham I was in Iraq in March during the invasion. Steve and I both got into Baghdad not long after the statue fell and worked as freelance photographers until about June of 2003 when we took a break for six weeks. We started Meeting Resistance in August 2003.
One of the stories I was working on as a freelancer was about places Saddam Hussein was seen before he disappeared. So I went to the Abu Hanifa mosque in the Adamiyeh neighborhood of Baghdad, where Saddam had reportedly been sighted. I met a gentleman who offered to show me around and I ended up chatting with him for a little while. After a while my translator told me he was in the resistance. I was surprised, like “that guy?” He was around fifty, had a paunch, mild mannered and gentle, welcoming to me as a foreigner there. I got back to the hotel and talked to Steve about it. We had started noticing small scale attacks against troops, and decided to look into it further.
What sort of dangers did you face working as “unembedded journalists” in Iraq?
Steve Conners One was that we were approaching people who were clearly involved in violence, and were pretty dangerous; we didn’t know if they were going to be dangerous to us. Our main defense was actually our defenselessness; it was Molly and me and a translator and a driver. We had no bodyguards, we just were hanging out and being what we are. When we first met each of the characters in the film, we were told by them in no uncertain terms if anything went wrong, which we took to mean if we were working for the American military or intelligence services, we would be killed. They knew where we lived.
Another was just generally being around Baghdad. There were bombs going off all over the place, lots of American convoys trucking around, they didn’t take to kindly to anybody walking too close to a convoy. A lot of Iraqis were shot for driving too close to the convoys. Iraq was a very dangerous place even then.
Did anything surprise you about the social and political makeup of the resistance?
MB: I think the thing we found was they were socially diverse, some had served in the military, some had not. There were some Sunni and some Shi’a, like the Traveler and the Syrian. What surprised us was in some ways how understandable, normal it was once you heard them explain what they were fighting for, their motivations. It started to make more sense. We didn’t know what we would find, but that was a little bit surprising. They said “we are defending our land, we don’t want to be occupied. Our honor is attacked by foreign troops on the soil.”
Generally their feeling wasn’t anti-American hatred, or hatred of America “because of our freedom.” It was because soldiers were on the ground. It wouldn’t have mattered if those troops were French or Chinese or American.
SC: In some ways we were not surprised, in some ways we were really surprised. We were always on a learning curve. There was an amazing quote by the Teacher, it didn’t make the final cut of the film. He said we want to have a good relationship with America, but send us your engineers or scholars, not your warriors who shoot the place up.
You interview an Iraqi professor in this film who has studied the resistance cells. He describes their motivations as primarily nationalist and patriotic. Yet many of the people in the film refer to Islam as the banner that these groups form under. What is your impression of the role played by Islamic ideology among the resistance?
MB: Again, each individual in the film had a separate and unique personal experience as to their motivations. Some were largely nationalist, with a dash if Islam, and then there were changes. Within the film, there are slight contradictions or nuances where people joined for different reasons.
In the beginning there was a very high nationalist attitude, or more secular, and later in the project we were beginning to pick up on a shift in tone, having a more Islamic foundation to it. It was a lot of talking to the Imam, around the time Saddam Hussein was caught. Basically he explained to us that because Iraq had become invaded by non-Muslims, it becomes imperative to fight Jihad. Nationalism folded into Islamic thinking. A lot of them had nationalist characteristics which converged with Islam.
SC: This is one of the things we really learned, which was very valuable for us. It’s so commonplace, particularly to the Sunnis, and these guys require no leadership, because what they are doing is already mandated in the Koran and the Hadith, which is like the Islamic equivalent to the gospels. This is the first insurgency in history where you can’t cut the head off because there is no head. Leadership is going where your followers want you to go. That was a really valuable lesson for us.
I know the American military thought the Imams were the leaders of the insurgency, because they would call for Jihad in the mosques. They went around arresting them, when in reality they were just articulating the demands of their congregation.
Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement staged an enormous rally last week, and early this week he withdrew his six ministers from the cabinet. According to the Iraq Study Group report, the Mehdi army is estimated around 60,000 fighters. Strangely, though, there is no mention of the Sadrist movement in the film. Did you get a sense of Sadr’s influence in your time spent in Iraq?
MB: there is a very brief mention toward the end. Just after the contractors were killed in Falluja in April 2004 there was a Sadrist uprising, following the closing the Sadrist newspaper by the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the issuing of arrest warrants for Sadr.
SC: The reason we didn’t put in more about Sadr was first of all that the project was very short-lived. We were talking to this resistance movement the Sadrists waited for a command from their sayed, we do try to explain some of that difference in the film.
MB: The major difference between Sunni and Shi’a in this context is that the Sunni are going to make their individual decision. They have a more “Protestant” direct relationship with God, they will make their own decision about Jihad. Shia have a more “Catholic” perspective, they will follow the rules and fatwas laid down by their leaders.
Some follow Sistani, some follow Sadr, and there are other leaders. If you look at the control the Shi’a leaders have over the population, it’s almost like a tap. Sadr can turn the tap on, say “I want you out demonstrating, or he can say “I want everyone to stay home, so there’s this really direct control the Shi’a leadership has that doesn’t exist on the Sunni side.
SC: There is a quote in the film, the Syrian said he was surprised the Iraqis weren’t rising “as one hand,” but if the Sunni and Shi’a got together, if Sistani got the word, they couldn’t rise as one hand and expel the Americans. The Warrior says something similar, at one point, where he asks “where is Sistani in this.” Sadr is probably the most underestimated man in Iraq right now.
MB: The recent demonstrations were a tremendous force politically, and it shows how controlled the Shia can be. That’s really important, the Shia don’t unanimously welcome foreign presence on their soil. In pulling his cabinet members this week, Sadr says he wants those positions filled by technocrats, to diminish the sectarian elements in the government.
SC: I don’t know if you spotted this, but there is a sort of “re-nationalism” coming up, after that bomb attack in the Green Zone the other day, which was purported to be by a suicide bomber. There’s talk of a shadow government being formed, a non-sectarian political bloc of Sadrists and Sunni nationalists. So this is spinning out into a very interesting way. That’s one story to watch in the coming weeks.
This film just had its world premier. What was the reaction from the audience like?
SC: Amazing. We had a 275 seat theater, and 60 people outside who couldn’t get in. It was full. A lot of people stuck around for the Q&A, and people were coming up to us the rest of the film festival.
MB: We’ve been working basically in isolation the last four years on this, so to finally be public with this project, and the way this film informs the debate about Iraq, it’s really wonderful for us to have that response.
SC: A lot of people have been very suspicious about what they’ve been told about Iraq, but they can’t put their finger on what doesn’t make sense. Meeting Resistance manages to answer some of those questions and then allow people to have a frame work from which they can ask more questions. We’ve found that there’s a sense of relief there, that “Hey, I’m not going crazy, it’s not about two-headed monsters, this is bout normal human beings and normal motivations. Once you understand this first year of the resistance, a lot of other things fall in to place.
MB: We’ve also shown this film for over 200 career officers at Quantico, at West Point, the Royal College of Defense Studies in Britain, and the response from those institutions has also been amazing, they had a lot of questions. It’s a tremendous honor as a journalist to see that your work is so highly valued. Through documentaries and TV pieces, Americans have been very highly exposed to the American soldiers’ experience in Iraq. This is the fist time Americans are being exposed to Iraqis speaking in their own voices, and given a chance to make their own judgments.
What can people who read this interview do to help bring this film to a larger audience?
MB: Our website is www.meetingresistance.com, there are clips of the film there. For members of universities or groups who want to see the film, they can contact us through the website. W would love to be invited to screen the film in front of universities or other interested groups.
KEVIN PROSEN grew up in Milwaukee, and is now a freelance writer and activist living in Durham. He can be reached at email@example.com