Recently, I attended a screening of the documentary Meeting Resistance, an inside look at the Iraqi insurgency. I was eager to see it. Few Western journalists had managed to penetrate the insurgency, and the glimpse offered in the documentary was original enough to garner showings at West Point, Centcom, and Camp Victory in Baghdad—part of an effort by the U.S. military to educate its soldiers about the adversary they face. As an added lure, the film’s directors, Molly Bingham and Steve Connors, were going to be on hand to take questions.
At the core of Meeting Resistance is footage from interviews with nearly a dozen insurgents living in the Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya. Each is identified with a simple generic tag. Each makes startling observations. The Teacher, a middle-class man with three children, describes stockpiling weapons for use in killing collaborators. The Traveler, a poor laborer who says he spent twenty years fighting alongside the Palestinians before returning to Iraq, boasts about the quality of the insurgents’ intelligence. When Paul Wolfowitz visited Baghdad, he claims, they knew “what time he comes in, what time he leaves…even his room number.” The Fugitive says that the Americans detained his mother so that he’d turn himself in; whether she’s released or not, he announces, “I will stay in the resistance.” The Syrian describes coming to Iraq to perform jihad; The Imam discusses the key part clerics are playing in encouraging resistance; and The Wife discloses how she uses her abaya to carry weapons and messages without being detected. “I yearn to be martyred,” she declares. The portrait given is that of a movement that is thoroughly disciplined, unwaveringly courageous, and utterly determined.
As to why the insurgents fight, however, Meeting Resistance seemed less sure-footed. The film gives prominent attention to a professor at Baghdad University who, having studied the insurgency, offers some precise figures about its composition. Eighty-five percent of the movement, he says, “is motivated by religion,” with young men impelled by Islam to regard “every aggressor, every occupier, as an enemy they should fight.” Thirteen percent are motivated “by patriotism, tribal codes, or revenge or reprisal” in response to “the bad actions of the occupation.” The remaining 2 percent are Baathists from the former regime. In their interviews, several insurgents attest to the part Islam played in their decision to oppose the Americans. Others, however, mention different sorts of motivations. “I remember what they did to us during the war, my friends that they killed,” says The Warrior. Whenever American tanks and soldiers passed by, he adds, “I felt a fire in my heart.” The Traveler describes an acquaintance who, after being roughed up by the Americans, goes out and buys a rocket launcher, which he promptly uses against them. “My ideology is nationalist,” The Traveler observes, declaring that “this is the greatest opportunity to establish the core of Arab unity.” That didn’t sound very Islamic.
During the question-and-answer period, some audience members picked up on these discrepancies. One woman said that, before attending the screening, she had watched the trailer of the film on the Internet and that it had asked, “What would you do if someone invaded your country?” That, she said, left the strong impression that nationalism was the main motivator behind the insurgency. Yet the film itself, she went on, strongly suggested that Islam was. Which was it? Responding, Molly Bingham said that when she and her co-director began their research, in May 2003, the insurgency had been largely secular in outlook but that over the course of their interviewing, as the occupation toughened, the population had undergone a transformation, growing more radical and more religious.
That seemed a critical observation. Why, I wondered, wasn’t it in the film? Other pertinent information seemed to be missing as well. During a discussion of the insurgents’ determination to silence traitors, for instance, a body is shown lying in a river. Was this man in fact a traitor? What were the circumstances behind his death? The film did not say. At another point, after a fighter describes the care the insurgents take to avoid civilian casualties, we are shown the aftermath of a car bomb in which a hundred people were killed or wounded. Who was behind the attack? The insurgents? If so, what did that say about their stated concern for civilian casualties? Again, no explanation. There were many other ambiguities of this sort. So, while awed by the directors’ courage and tenacity in gathering their material, I came away from the screening frustrated by the gaps I saw in the finished product (not to mention the generally rosy way in which the insurgents were portrayed).