Documentary Edge Festival review: War of Lies

war of lies - MAINThe Iraq war started twelve years ago, briefly after the invasion of Afghanistan following the attacks on New York City in 2001. With enough distance from the beginning of the US’ fateful foray into the Middle East at the start of this century, even George W. Bush’s brother (who’s also a current Republican Presidential candidate) Jeb has been scrambling to distance himself from support for the war. It is starting to feel like enough time has finally passed for even the staunchest President Bush supporters to question the decisions that took the American military to Baghdad.

This film shines a spotlight on Rafed Aljanabi aka Curveball, the one-time chemical engineer under Saddam Hussein’s regime who became an Iraqi defector providing the critical intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programmes that initiated the Iraq War. That would be interesting enough by itself but what we find out in the course of this 89 minute feature is the information he provided, by Aljanabi’s own admission, was false.

Rafed shows himself on camera to be self-aggrandising, occasionally self-reflective and an uncomfortably skilful story-teller. He recounts what he went through beginning in 1999 when he fled Iraq to Germany on a personal mission to remove Hussein from power. What unfolds in the ensuing four years is an amazing tale of his interactions with the German secret service, leading ultimately to the US bombardment of Iraq on March 19 2003. The long form interview of Rafed is spliced with a combination of news clips, re-enactments (which I usually detest in documentaries but found to be a brilliant narrative tool in this film) and relevant videos pulled from the web.

First, let me say that I was struck by the shear fact that this film exists at all. It’s really quite incredible. A long form interview with the man whose ‘intelligence’ allowed the USA to go to war with Iraq is not something you expect to have access to in a darkened cinema in Auckland on a rainy Sunday night. The restraint shown by the film-maker to present multiple sides of Rafed is appreciated and leaves an unsettling feeling for the audience. Undoubtedly, his motives of unseating a dictator he saw first-hand ruling his home country using fear and murder are justifiable. What becomes increasingly unclear by the end of the film however, is whether the action he undertook in the name of the greater good are morally permissible or if he has the blood of half a million Iraqis on his hands.

However, even when taking the question of morality out of the picture, we are still left with an engrossing first-hand account of what led America to war, on the record. This documentary represents as rare a personal insight into historic American conflict as Errol Morris’ Fog of War (though admittedly with less substance due to both the film’s protagonist and the artistic direction of the project). By the end of the film you can’t help but question Rafed’s character and the totality of his accounts but even if we only accept the most solid facts in his account, War of Lies is still an incredible indictment against the men who took America to war in Iraq.

This film is a bombshell, a riveting spy story and an unsettlingly candid personal account by the man whose testimony justified a war with repercussions we will feel for decades more. Though not without its flaws, I highly recommend seeing this film and doing so in a cinema to fully absorb its heft without distraction.

War of Lies is playing as part of the Documentary Edge Festival 2015. Auckland at Q Theatre on Sunday May 24th, Wednesday 27th and Saturday 30th. In Wellington at The Roxy Cinema onFriday June 5, Sunday 7th and Wednesday 10th.

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