Japanese director takes a birds-eye view of Iraq war

by BEN HAMAMOTO, Nichi Bei Times

Japanese filmmaker Takeharu Watai was in Iraq when the U.S. Armed Forces dropped the first bombs in the March 2003 invasion. He remained there after the “Mission Accomplished” banner was unfurled and the occupation began. He was there filming ordinary citizens, living normally before the chaos of war tore into the country. And he captured it all on camera.

Watai’s documentary, “Little Birds” is culled from over 123 hours of footage and it shows the war from a viewpoint rarely seen in U.S. media. The film unfolds chronologically and begins with pre-war life. The Iraq on display is a peaceful one, with comparatively poor, but by no means destitute, families anxious about the impending violence.

Watai then shows us the invasion from this vantage point. Familiar buildings are reduced to rubble; men, women and children perish in the flames. His cameras capture the triumphant falling of the Saddam statue and then take us into the hospitals, where the screams of limbless children fill the hallways and a father cries in anguish as he watches his young son take his last breaths.

An independent journalist from Japan — who has covered the Sri Lankan civil war, Sudanese famine, and East Timor and the Aceh struggle for independence — Watai is traveling the U.S. with his film and a message for the American people.

The Nichi Bei Times caught up with Watai over the weekend to talk about “Little Birds” and Nikkei war resister Lt Ehren Watada.

Nichi Bei Times: Of all the footage you recorded, the approximately two hours that constitutes the documentary is focused very heavily on children. Why did you decide to emphasize this?

Takeharu Watai: I had been in Iraq for almost three years. A lot of civilians were killed in this war, especially children, because in Iraq there are lots of children. Families with three or four children are common, sometimes even five or six. Children are more fragile, so they are more likely to be seriously injured. Even small shrapnel fragments from a missile can be fatal; so many children have been dying. I followed a family, in which the man lost three children. Another person I focus on is a girl who was injured by a cluster bomb dropped by the U.S.

NBT: There has been a lot of criticism that American mainstream media has not covered the war objectively. What is the media coverage like in Japan?

TW: I think American media shows only the American viewpoint. Arabic media only shows the Arabic viewpoint. In Japan we get a lot of our coverage from American news, AP, Reuters, etc. Individually, you may see newspapers or TV coverage of Iraqi families. Lately, not so much, because it is so dangerous in Iraq, Japanese media all evacuated. Only NHK, Japanese public media, is still there. But even they cannot go outside easily. They are escorted by armed guards.

NBT: There is one scene in which you show the Japanese Self-Defense Forces posing for a photo-op eating food rations, surrounded by Japanese media. Why was this scene included?

TW: I wanted to show the relationship between Japanese media and Japanese army. Every time the Japanese media cover something, everybody is doing the same thing. I’m criticizing the relationship between the Japanese media and the SDF. There are a lot of independent journalists covering the war, so you do get some diversity of coverage. But the mass media is always the same thing. Some journalists from the mass media do occasionally present a unique viewpoint, but I cannot say that generally speaking.

NBT: How were you received in Iraq as a Japanese person?

TW: Normally, Arabic people respect Japanese for their consumer products. Also there were a lot of Japanese in Iraq, from the general consulate or Japanese companies, until the Gulf War started. Another thing is the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. That story is very familiar to the Arabic people. That is why they respect the Japanese. After the Iraq War started, the Arabic view of the Japanese is different. I was asked so many times, “why does Japan always follow the U.S.?” Sometimes they are very angry.

NBT: Is Lt. Watada well known in Japan?

TW: Watada is not famous in Japan. He has appeared in newspapers, but I haven’t seen TV coverage of him.

NBT: You are touring in the San Francisco Bay Area with Carolyn Ho, Lt. Watada’s mother. How is the Watada case and your film connected?

TW: (Lt. Watada has expressed concern for the people of Iraq and the effect the war has had upon them). What the Iraqi people are seeing and feeling is a very important issue. We (both want people to) please understand the Iraq people’s situation. I personally think he is very brave, because often military personnel cannot express their own opinions. All the SDF I met all had the same opinion. I think what Watada is doing is outstanding and I think it’s a landmark for Japanese American society. I support him fully.

article originally published at http://www.nichibeitimes.com/articles/artsent.php?subaction=showfull&id=11703549....

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