Tribeca Review: The List


[From April 19th to the 29th, Flixist will bring you live coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Keep an eye out for news, features, interviews, videos, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films to hit the festival circuit in 2012.]

During the war in Iraq, thousands of Iraqis assisted US forces by serving as translators and liaisons for our troops. They did this under threat of death from fellow Iraqis as well as various terrorist organizations. As essential as they were to the mission, the United States government did nothing to protect them or their families from these threats, leading to numerous murders and kidnappings.

Kirk Johnson started The List Project as a means of resettling these endangered Iraqi allies. The process has been slow, and it has been ongoing, but more than 1,000 lives have been saved. Even though the last US troops withdrew from Iraq last December, there are still thousands of more allies we have abandoned. They are in danger or in hiding.

The List is Johnson’s story and the story of these Iraqi allies. It is essential viewing for anyone who cares about the lasting repercussions and human costs of war. It’s a moving, important call for action — a compelling documentary driven by an urgent moral imperative.

The List
Director: Beth Murphy
Rating: TBD
Release Date: TBD

No End in Sight and the Frontline episode The Lost Year in Iraq were damning wake-up calls about policies implemented in Iraq immediately after the invasion. (And that’s not even getting into the manufactured intelligence prior to the invasion.) The List shows another unfortunate shortcoming when it came to the American mission in Iraq. We essentially used Iraqi civilians to help keep our troops safe, but we did nothing in return to save their lives.

From the beginning, something doesn’t sit right. Iraqis in the green zone aren’t given body armor for protection. There are no guards looking out for them when they are away from the troops. When they report death threats, they are met by deaf ears or with indifference. This seems like a consequence of the bureaucracy, poor planning, and just not enough troops on the ground to maintain order.

Three Iraqi allies we follow in the film are Anna (who served as a liaison), Ibrahim (who served as a procurement specialist), and Yaghdan (who worked alongside Kirk Johnson at USAID). In Ibrahim’s case, he’s forced to flee Iraq like so many others as a result of the war. Some estimate that between 4 million and 5 million Iraqis have been displaced; that’s roughly one in six citizens in Iraq. There’s a sort of smuggling network that’s been created to get people out of Iraq and into other countries, but these organizations may be more trouble than they are good. Yet it’s the lack of action from the US government that forces people to make such extreme choices.

In documentaries about humanitarian causes, you tend to see figures who are inspirational. In this case it’s Kirk Johnson. On top of starting The List Project on his own, he’s cut from some strong Midwestern stock, internationally minded, politically minded, well traveled, and yet remarkably grounded. Seeing him on screen is like watching the strongest possible counterpoint to the indifferent, ignorant, and ugly American. He was in Iraq with USAID because he knew about the region and its politics and actually spoke Arabic. (Few people involved in military operations or with the US embassy knew the language.) Not only did he speak Arabic, Kirk showed solidarity with Iraqi aid workers and allies by not wearing body armor just like them.

There was a panel after the screening moderated by George Packer from The New Yorker. The panelists included director Beth Murphy, Anna from the film, Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Marcia Tavares Maack of Mayer Brown LLP, one of the law firms that assists with The List Project. Kirk Johnson was supposed to be in attendance at the panel but couldn’t make, maybe because he had to save a life. Rieckhoff pointed out that you can be having a drink with Kirk and all of a sudden he’ll receive an urgent email or text from someone in Iraq who is in immanent danger. That sense of moral obligation doesn’t end.

The List is careful to paint Kirk as concerned rather than saintly. He doesn’t say anything aggrandizing, and the film isn’t in the business of hagiography. The List is mainly focused on the way the project assists endangered Iraqis. Sometimes the potency of the subject matter can carry a poorly made documentary a long way, but Murphy’s filmmaking and crafting of this material is competent throughout. Rather than being carried by the subject matter, she follows it carefully and with great compassion.

Murphy mentioned during the panel discussion that she filmed many more Iraqi allies for the documentary, but she made a concerted effort not to highlight any of their stories on film until they were safely out of the country. This was in order to protect their identities and the identities of their families. It’s also because this movie isn’t exploitative but instead hopeful. Those not named in the film are filmed from behind or in shadow or have their faces obscured.

You notice a lot of blurred faces in the film whose stories have yet to be told, and whose lives are in very real danger. Though they have already been carefully vetted by the US government in order to aid in the Iraqi reconstruction, some of them have to wait a year to three years just to be relocated. This is a long time to live in hiding or under threat. One of the blurred faces in the film was horribly injured while dragging one of the US servicemen he worked with to safety. Somehow the circumstances of his sacrifice have not expedited his relocation. Someday I hope that story is told in full and his face can be revealed.

There’s a remarkable scene in the film where Yaghdan watches the media coverage of the final minutes of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He laughs at the way it’s being covered on television, but that’s sometimes the only thing you can do in the face of the absurd. Vehicles quietly file out at night, but today the sectarian violence within the country rages on.

During the panel discussion, Maack mentioned that the Obama administration hasn’t been any better than the Bush administration about this issue. I believe she said it’s as if they just want to be over with it, but it’s not over. There was a relocated Iraqi in the audience who worked as a surgeon or doctor alongside service members. He had a roundabout path to the US through India done outside the Kirk list. He was livid. He said he can’t rate the movie a five (ostensibly on a five-point scale) because the film is about a country’s pain. He rambled, he ranted, he even self-promoted, but he asked why some people were given emergency evacuations while others were not. The outrage was genuine because to abandon so many people is a genuine outrage.

We haven’t heard much from Iraq lately since the troop presence is down as is the presence of embedded journalists. (Even covering the war can have a heavy toll on a person. If you’ve followed Michael Ware’s coverage and career over the years, you see just how damaging it can be.) As Packer mentioned during the panel, maybe no news is bad news.

Obviously I think everyone who cares about global politics and human beings in peril needs to see The List, but there’s something else I need to bring up. At one point in the film, Ibrahim quotes Mother Theresa and says that the opposite of love isn’t hate but rather indifference. The frightening thing about that notion is that indifference is so easy.

So while this is outside the purview of many of the usual reviews we do here at Flixist, I have a request: do something. Go visit Read up on the humanitarian crises our Iraqi allies face. Stay informed about what’s unfolding in Iraq. Go write your congresspeople and senators. Let the Obama administration know there’s still a major moral obligation to the Iraqi people that needs to be met.

Make like the James Brown song: get up, get into it, get involved.

Do something constructive and helpful. Whatever you do, just don’t be indifferent.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.