Making Curriculum Pop

This activity is part of a larger series of lessons designed to help students recognize the power of editing in documentary film. I'm posting it in response to a question about pro/con films on the war:

One recent topic with the most films that can be used to analyze editing and perspective is, unfortunately, the war in Iraq. There is a huge number of films that are widely available online, at video stores, Netflix and Amazon, including Gunner Palace, Fahrenheit 911 and such Academy Award nominees as Iraq in Fragments, No End in Sight, My Country, My Country, Taxi to the Dark Side, and Operation Homecoming.. Here are editing aspects of each clip to look for and some questions that you might want to consider asking your students. Please note that while many of these films are identified as “NR” for “not rated,” there may be concerns with strong language and graphic images, so you will want to be sure to preview each clip and make a determination of its use based upon your students and community.
My Country, My Country (directed by Laura Poitras, 2006)
Chapter 6: 0:39:08-0:42:53

This section begins with the main subject of the film, Dr. Riyadh, a moderate Sunni running in the contentious 2005 elections after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, meeting with a potential supporter on the quiet streets of Adhamiya, a Baghdad neighborhood. The two men discuss the benefits of moderation in the face of extremism. Dr. Riyadh comes across as thoughtful, passionate, and levelheaded, and the calm on the streets seems to support his views. As a bridge to the next scene, the filmmaker cuts to soldiers in tanks patrolling, an army official distributing thousands of U.S. dollars to an Iraqi, and a soldier in a helicopter wearing a mock “panic button” on his helmet. The next scene is a briefing of very young-looking American soldiers who are warned of the growing anti-Americanism of the area. Though the chapter is called “Bad Things Can Happen,” it ends with the briefer, who had just broken down briefly talking about the loss of two Iraqi colleagues, telling the soldiers, almost trying to convince himself, “it’s not all bad, it’s not all bad.”
Questions to consider:
1. What point is the filmmaker trying to make by including the shots inserted between Dr. Riyadh and the briefing of the soldiers? What is in common among those shots?
2. Filmmakers often try to make their points through contrast. What is contrasted in this scene and for what purpose? How is this contrast drawn through the editing choices of the director?
3. When you think back on this clip, what are the most memorable sequences of the visual and/or the audio tracks? Why? What point do you think the director is trying to make in this sequence?
Iraq in Fragments (directed by James Longley, 2006)
Chapter 1: 0-0:04:20

This clip comes from the very beginning of this powerful and beautifully shot film about the three geographical, political, and cultural regions in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. We first see slow motion shots of a city, Baghdad before the invasion, as we learn later; people are moving around, doing typical activities of commuting and shopping with blue sky and a river in the background. Then we see a close-up of a young boy’s face and eyes; the editing makes it seem as if he is looking out at the city. Suddenly, the images and the sound changes. The streets are now deserted and smoke plumes appear throughout the city, including the bridge we had seen earlier. The pace of the shots and the music is quick; the effect is dizzying and disorienting. We see the same boy’s face again, but this time he is bookended with pictures of helicopters and other images of war.
Questions to consider:
1. This is the very beginning of the film. What do you think the rest of the film will be about? Why? What role does the editing play in your prediction?
2. Even though this scene contains no dialogue, how does the director communicate his point to the audience?
3. Review the clip a second time and pay close attention to the before and after the invasions sections. What do you notice about the visual and the audio tracks of each? Why did the director construct the clip in this manner?
4. In what ways does this clip compare to the other clips about Iraq? Does it present similar or different messages about the war? How so?

Fahrenheit 911 (Michael Moore)
Chapter 20: 1:20:03-1:22:05
Note: Be careful of using this section with younger students; it contains graphic images.

At the beginning of the clip, then-President Bush says of the Iraq war that The United States and our allies have prevailed. But, then the director cuts right from Bush’s words to a violent explosion in Iraq right in front of a pair of soldiers; on the soundtrack for a few seconds is an unearthly silence and then a series of shots of wounded American soldiers and the sound of screaming and chaotic orders. From this, the director cuts back to another press conference where President Bush delivers the infamous line, “Bring ‘em on” at which point the film moves to the horrific images of the American contract workers in Fallujah who were tortured, burned, and hanged.
Questions to consider:
1. This section appears to be critical of President Bush. How does the editing reveal this? What is purpose of putting President bush in between the images from the war?
2. How do the music and other sound elements in this scene reveal the point the filmmaker is trying to make?
3. If this film were going to praise President Bush, how would it have been edited differently? What would have been left out and what would have been added? Why?
4. How does this sequence compare to the previous clips you have seen about the Iraq war?

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Replies to This Discussion

Great ideas, John! You've done us a great service by identifying specific scenes. There are sections of "Operation Homecoming" (both a book and a documentary film, based on the writing of soldiers) that would also be good to analyze. To repeat what you said, teachers would need to preview for "language."

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