Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Put TFF Doc "The List" on Your List

Playing at Tribeca Film Festival

Put TFF Doc "The List" on Your List

(from brinkzine.co 4/25/12)

listphoto.jpg Beth Murphy, photo Danny Peary
Beth Murphy surely is correct in assuming that the brave, inspiring protagonists of her documentaries--especially the young women who battle breast cancer in Fighting for Our Future (2002), the 9/11 widows and Afghanistan widows who bond in Beyond Belief (2007), and now Kirk Johnson, who resettles endangered Iraqis in America in The List--are heroes. But it should be pointed out that this humanitarian filmmaker is a hero herself to me and others for having the courage and compassion to have traveled the world, including war-torn countries, to bring to light stories that need to be told. The List is one such dramatic story and it is premiering at the current Tribeca Film Festival. You can still see the film at the Clearview Cinemas on 23rd and 8th on Wednesday at 3:45 and Saturday at 8:30. The List was on my list of must-see movies even before the great reviews started flowing in and I was grateful able to spend a few minutes talking with the acclaimed director.
Danny Peary: You worked on The List for four years?
Beth Murphy: Yes. I started filming it in August of 2007.
DP: Was that always the title and did it ever have a subtitle?
BM: It was the original title and [laughing] it changed to The Promise of Freedom and then we changed it back. I never thought of adding a subtitle, which would be descriptive.
DP: If you're going to spend four years on a film, it has to be something essential to you, so why did you want to focus on this topic?
BM: You're right, all my projects have to resonate in a really deep way and be meaningful. Way back when I thought I might do investigative pieces and have protagonists who might be pretty despicable. But I realized it means a lot to me to like the people who are featured in my films and to really believe in who they are and what they do. And that's certainly the case with Kirk Johnson. I have a deep personal interest in refugee issues and have served many years on the board of an organization that works with immigrants and refugees and we do a lot of resettlements in America. In 2007 our resettlement department was expecting an influx of Iraqis. We were waiting for all these Iraqis to arrive in New England...and nobody came. There was discrepancy between what was being said by the government and what was actually happening on the ground for our organization. I was curious about why this was going on. So I started making phone calls and that is what eventually led me to Kirk and his work.
DP: Were you already thinking movie?
BM (laughing): I was. But there was a question about how to tell it. There are a lot of great stories out there and the question is: Am I the person to tell that story? It's really critical that I have unique access or s unique angle.
DP: And you have to click with your subject, in this case Kirk Johnson.
BM: Absolutely. It has to be an intimate relationship, one that is built on a foundation of trust. When Kirk and I met I knew pretty much immediately that I wanted to start filming with him. Less than a month later we started filming. The first person on his list was arriving in Chicago to move into Kirk's childhood home. His parents were taking him in.
listpromo.jpgKirk Johnson
DP: Talk about Kirk's involvement with resettlement. I read that he was working with an aid group that tried to improve the infrastructure in war-torn cities in Iraq and then after returning to America, he learned that his Iraqi co-workers were being murdered or threatened by radical militias because they were perceived as traitors for having helped America, including as translators.
BM: Kirk worked for USAID on reconstruction projects, first in Baghdad and then Fallujah. He was the first person from USAID to go to Fallujah in 2005 when there was a lot going on there. To me, Kirk represents the best in America. He's young. He turned thirty when we traveled to Iraq together. He celebrated his birthday there.
DP: You filmed in several countries. Was he with you all the time?
BM: He was with us in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. We were also with Chris Nugent, who is a refugee lawyer from Holland & Knight We had a three-person crew. We traveled without Kirk the second time we went to Iraq and Egypt. That time there were just two of us.
DP: Where did you shoot in Iraq?
BM: We were all over. We stayed primarily in Baghdad but drove to Sulaymaniyah, Nasiriyah, Basra, all over the country.
DP: Did you travel to certain towns because someone there had contacted Kirk about fleeing to America?
BM: In a couple of cases, yes. In another couple of cases, we were traveling to meet up with the military for two reasons. We wanted to talk about the withdrawal because the primary concern of these Iraqis is what will happen to people like them after American forces leave. We did it minimally but also we did have a bit of an embed in order to film military translators.
DP: I assume these people who want to leave Iraq want to take their families with them because they fear repercussions. 
BM: Absolutely.
DP: What was your process in filming? Did you follow Kirk around or did you hear of things and take Kirk with you?
BM: When we filmed with Kirk in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, all the Iraqis we met with were on Kirk's list or wanted to be on it. They had been in touch with him so he organized how we were going to meet them together. When we weren't with Kirk in our other trip to Iraq, we interviewed Iraqis by ourselves. Many people on his list were people he worked with or had relations with, but there were a lot of people we interviewed without him who didn't have that personal connection to him but were on the list.
DP: So there actually is a formal list?
BM: Yes, with over 3,000 names on it, of which 1,100 he has successfully brought to the United States. The first on the list was his friend, but they don't go down the list one at a time. All of the people on the list have been assigned attorneys who are working on their cases. There are about 200 lawyers across the country working on these cases. There has been a massive paradigm shift in refugee law--never before have refugees had such access to legal support.
DP: Had you been to Iraq before?
BM: No, these were my first trips there. I've been to Afghanistan five times now.
DP: So like us, you've just watched the war on TV. What was your surprise there, maybe in regard to how America is perceived by the populace.
BM: The biggest surprise came on the final trip to Iraq in 2010. I really believe there is no worse feeling than being an American in Iraq. It's devastating. I didn't meet one Iraqi there who has any sense of hope for the future. None.

DP: Is it there is no hope for the future because of what America did?
BM: Absolutely, because of the state Iraqi was left. There was so much hope at the beginning. We open the film with that, and it was very dramatic for me to remind myself of what happened at the beginning of the war, with the American flags being held high; and there was "Go USA" and all this enthusiasm.
DP: Is what Kirk is doing helping with America's image there or will the image remain bad because he's rescuing Iraqis they're angry with?
BM: That's a tough question. I'd like to think it would help. I like to think that any time relationships can be built in a meaningful way, even one person to one person, that's meaningful.
DP: That's a theme in much of your work.
BM: Definitely. Yes, it's happening, and the people who are coming here are integrating into communities and building relationships. Like the couple who moved in with Kirk's parents. He's a son to them now.
DP: Give me two or three things you're gratified about being able to communicate in your film?
BM: I think it's really important to communicate the moral consequences of war, and morality in times of war. I like to think it can be a point of reflection about the tragic human consequences of war, so when we do engage in places we have more of a sense of what we're doing and the legacy we'll leave behind in another country and at home. I hope it is also an exploration of American values, and how we can be true to them when we operate on the world stage.
DP: As an addition to your oeuvre, is The List a satisfying part of what you want to do?
BM: It's a difficult topic and when I think of what the Iraqis who worked with us have been through and that I told the story only because of that, so it's hard to feel anything other than I'm happy to have had the opportunity to share Kirk's work with people. I think his work is important, as is his message. That I can help to communicate his message means a lot to me.
DP: Is Kirk the only one doing this kind of work?
BM: He's at the helm but are so many people supporting what he's doing in every single case. In addition to the lawyers there are advocates for all the Iraqis. On each case, there is a huge dossier containing letters of support from American supervisors and former colleagues.
DP: Have things changed since Obama replaced Bush?
BM: It got worse. The numbers are more deplorable in regard to Iraqis getting into America. There is less attention being paid. The hope was that when the administration changed that things would change dramatically for the better for this population, but in fact it got worth. The expectation was that more people would be saved; in fact, fewer have been. Nobody knows how many people have been killed or disappeared. They can't even track how many Iraqis worked for America. There are some pretty dramatic reports. One company kept track of the number people killed over a certain amount of time. It was disgusting.
 DP: Your film Beyond Belief had a connection to 9/11, which was the reason the Tribeca Film Festival came into existence. How does it feel for you to have a film at this festival?
listbeyondbeliefposter.jpgBeth Murphy's previous film
BM: Beyond Belief premiered at the festival in 2007 and to have The List premiere here five years later makes it feel like I've come home. I'm really grateful to the festival and the Tribeca Film Institute for all the support. I love everything about the experience. Also: Kirk brought Iraqis to New York. One of the main characters in the film ended up here--he's working in a law firm!
listbeth.jpg

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