LEWISTON TRIBUNEFilmmaker looks 'Inside Iraq'
Documentarian brings his film to WSU for showing and
November 5, 2004JENNIFER K. BAUER
Like many Americans, independent filmmaker Mike Shiley's life is divided into before 9-11, and the dark shadow of after.
Before 9-11, he worked odd jobs between trekking the globe making what he calls B-version Travel Channel adventure
videos bought mostly by senior citizens, "who didn't seem to know cable TV existed." After 9-11, he talked his way into the
Iraqi war zone with his camera.
Footage of him climbing Everest and on elephant safari in Thailand changed to him
interviewing child victims of Saddam's mine fields and firing a tank on a U.S. "harass and intimidate" mission. These last
are scenes in his 80-minute documentary, "Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories," which he is taking to universities and colleges
around the country. He will be at Washington State University in Pullman Sunday.
After getting a business degree in
1989 from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Shiley went to work at Burlington Northern Railroad in "the most boring
job ever." He saved his money, quit and began traveling around the world with his camera. He guided scuba dives in Egypt,
where he learned Arabic, and biked 3,000 miles from Canada to Mexico. He visited Russia in its first year of nonrestricted
travel and spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem.
Then 9-11 happened and Shiley felt called to do something for his country.
"I was too old to join the military and I was not sure if that was the direction for me. I wanted to see if I could get into
Iraq and tell a story closer to what was going on in the country."
He convinced the Portland branch of Northwest Medical
Teams International to take him to northern Iraq, where teams were setting up medical clinics during the spring of 2003. The
organization first rejected, then accepted -- after more persuading -- his offer to pay his own expenses and film the teams'
efforts. The Kurdish region was safely pro-American.
When he returned to the United States he felt he had to get to
Baghdad to get the story. He contacted all the major media affiliates in Portland and made a deal with ABC, the only one that
replied, to supply free images from Iraq. In return, he agreed to be embedded with the Oregon National Guard -- who happened
to be running the largest base in the country, Logistical Support Area Anaconda.
Shiley was to leave before Christmas
2003. Kidnappings, beheadings and car bombings were the daily headlines and he circled the airport anxiously four times in
his car. "I could not get myself out of the car. It was like peeling myself off the seat."
His introduction to the
war zone was ABC's weekly Saturday morning "shuttle" -- 11 armor-plated, bullet-proof, white Chevy Suburbans driving in wedge
formation at 100 mph along Route 1 from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad. The 10-hour trip took them through Fallujah, the country's
most violence-prone city and part of the rebellious Sunni Triangle.
Driving through Fallujah, the armed Jordanian
drivers didn't take any chances, bumping cars that got in their way off the road. Shiley and the others had to don bullet-proof
vests and lay on the floor. "It was probably the scariest part of the whole experience," says Shiley, who had begun filming.
His untold stories of Iraq include a day at Saddam's mine fields on the border between Kurdistan and Iraq. The 30
million mines behind lines of red flags printed with skull-and-crossbones symbols were being removed by workers paid $10 a
day. He spent Christmas Eve with U.S. soldiers listening to gunfire and helicopters and visited an Iraqi hospital for mine
victims where children sit with faces, legs and arms melted by the mines' sulfuric acid.
He finds a civilian bomb
shelter hit by a U.S. laser-guided, bunker-busting, smart bomb during the first Gulf War. The shelter was lined with three
layers of 6-foot-thick, reinforced concrete. There were 345 people inside. "The heat was so great when it detonated it literally
seared people to the walls. It burned them so bad you could see the outlines of people. It's ghastly. It's like the shadow
of a ghost." The shelter now contains gravestones, photos of victims and a clock set at the time of the explosion. "It's just
one person's perspective," Shiley says of his film. "I didn't try to push an agenda. It's my personal experience. It's disturbing.
It's sad. There are people out there who don't want to think. They want to think that everything we (the U.S.) touch turns
to gold. "We're trying to make a neutral film. It's so messed up over there. We are our own worst enemy in so many ways."
Shiley believes he has a better perspective on what is going on in Iraq than most soldiers stationed there. "I respect
the soldiers. I was embedded with them for two weeks, wore the uniform of the military and trained to be a gunner on a tank.
Even so, I'll tell you that so many of them don't understand Iraqi culture. "Few speak two words of the language and the vast
majority never get off the base, never get around the people. They just don't do that. They're up in a tank or in a unit sweeping
for insurgents -- although the people that do that are a very small part of what they do over there. Most know relatively
little about the country and may or may not have met an Iraqi."
Shiley says response to "Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories"
has been polarized at the universities and colleges he has visited. In one place, a Vietnam veteran jumped on stage screaming
and cursing Shiley and his film. He had to be removed by security guards. Other times, he says, people bought the video before
the show and demanded their money back afterward. Others have approached him with tears in their eyes saying it's the greatest
thing they've ever seen. He is entering the film at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals.
He is planning a new film
about the civil war in Sudan, Africa. "I feel I've done something far greater than I ever thought," says Shiley. "I'm just
one guy and his camera ... I just shot what I saw."
Bauer may be contacted at email@example.com