Four Iraqi men discuss their flight from Iraq following the United States invasion in 2003. Between them – an interpreter for the US Military, a computer technician for a military contractor, a professor of English, and an oil ministry employee – a dialogue emerges about their lives as refugees in Sweden. They discuss their divergent approaches to coping with trauma and self-representation. To them, Iraq as a nation exists only in the past-tense.
While in Sweden on a research grant for an unrelated project, we read numerous articles about the status of Iraqi refugees in Sweden. Of the over two million people estimated to have fled Iraq since March of 2003, Sweden has accepted the third-largest number of refugees, after much larger groups in Jordan and Syria. In 2006, Sweden took in approximately 9,000 refugees, whereas the U.S. at that point had accepted only about 600 Iraqis since the start of the war. Our interest in the lives of the Iraqi refugee diaspora stems from a profound frustration with past and present U.S. foreign policy, and also a wariness regarding how Sweden’s welfare state ideology will negotiate a rapidly growing immigrant population. Södertälje, with its preexisting Assyrian community, has attracted a large proportion of the Iraqi asylum-seekers; as such, the Iraqi community in Södertälje presented us with a unique opportunity to learn more about the relationship of Swedish immigration policies to U.S. military interventionism, global migrations of people, as well as the perspectives of those affected on how the U.S. should take responsibility for its actions. Rather than positing immigration as a solution, we intend this video to take up a certain media space that has been obscured, intentionally, in the United States around images of dissent and displacement.
Because There Are So Many
This piece began as research with a camera, an interview toward the possibility of making a longer documentary project over an extended period of time. In the summer of 2007, there was another urgency: the Swedish state had determined that, due to a decreasing death toll, the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq no longer fit the Swedish legal definition of a war. Consequently, Swedish immigration authorities were beginning a somewhat arbitrary process of returning Iraqis, living in Sweden and awaiting asylum, to Iraq, with the pronouncement that they were no longer at risk. This was the climate under which we decided to set up the interview seen.
From the United States
We entered into this project with certain personal stakes. Based in the U.S., we had a desire to enter into a dialogue with someone, anyone, who had fled Iraq after March 2003. Second, we felt that the question of forced migration was absent from both the many debates about the Iraq war – which instead tended to focus only on death toll or economic cost – and from immigration debates within the U.S. The linkage to U.S. interventionism and the frequently resulting regional political or economic destabilizations is obscured when anti-immigration factions present the United States as an entity geographically bounded by its borders. The focus on the border in both politics and art misses the obvious point that the United States was already there – where an immigrant is coming from – in political, economic, or military terms (often all three). Projects about U.S. intervention and global economic hegemony then should be considered projects about migration as well. In this case, we were interested in the role European states, e.g. Sweden, with differing immigration policies (often problematic in their own right and only commendable in comparison to those of the U.S.) were allowing the U.S. to wage a war while partially concealing (within the U.S.) its full and disastrous effects.
We were also interested in offering a critique of Swedish Social Democratic policy, neoliberal trends within the Swedish nation-state, as well as lived social relations in Sweden, around immigration, assimilation, and difference. In the editing of this piece, this question is staged as juxtaposition: the cross-cutting between our interview room and scenes from a mall, department store, and park in downtown Stockholm.
To Talking About Iraq
While all these questions remain in place in the final 8-minute edit of the piece, sometimes implicitly, what of the piece and the process? We could list all the problems with the piece and reasons we did not, in the end, pursue a longer project. Some are very obvious, including the limitations of a voluntary structure (all men), the social problems of the format of a group interview (increased performative element), and, quite honestly, our problematic realization, as interviewers, that we were more invested in encountering each of these men than we were in the the responses we were receiving. Most importantly, there is no affirmative character for which we were advocating: Is the ideal outcome only that the United States should accept more refugees? Or that Swedes should become more tolerant of difference and less bent on silent assimilation? We would advocate for both of these things, but neither are answers and at least one occurs at a state bureaucratic level where, as critical artists, it is difficult to actually make demands. For this reason it is a melancholic piece, about fragments and pieces in a place that is neither horrific nor ideal as a home for these men and their community. It is a short project in which we approached with a camera and the offer of a platform, and these four people simply wanted their stories to be heard outside Sweden. We chose to work within and against documentary codes, but also to include shots which carried awkward camera movement, revealed microphones, or poor color balancing. The latter element was not an aesthetic decision at the outset, but an editing choice, a question about production values and critical art practice. We offer this strategy as a suggestion that the “by now we should know better” of the camera might create a small opening for the viewer to ask the same question of the conflicts and procedures articulated in the piece.
Södertälje — Benj Gerdes and Jennifer Hayashida, 2007 (dvd 8:22 min.)