Thursday, October 14, 2010

Nicholas Kristof on What Oman Can Teach Us

In his New York Times column today, Nicholas Kristof writes about the benefits of books over bombs. He suggests that America's strategy for crushing extremism by using force may not be the best possible solution. He uses Oman as an example - a country that, only 40 years ago, was as tribal and traditional as its neighbor, Yemen. Oman, however, did not become the hotbed of Al Quaeda terrorism that Yemen has - in large part due to an emphasis on education for both girls and boys. Read Kristof's article about his travels and observations.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Love Stories of Iraqi Widows

After a love story that lasted 10 years, one minute was all it took to lost my husband.

The number of widows resulting from the last three decades of conflict in Iraq has grown to more than a million. Iraqi women tell their stories of the loves they once had and the difficult lives that were left behind.

Razan Othman Mohammed, 29-year-old worker in Baghdad

Back in 2008, my husband, his orphaned relative - who was only five years old - and I were caught up in a bomb explosion at the market. When the medics came to our rescue, a suicide bomber strapped with explosives set off another bomb. I lost consciousness at that moment and my body was full of shrapnel. My husband died of his injuries on his way to the hospital and the orphaned child was badly injured. He is now disabled and no longer able to walk. I have undergone five surgeries in the aftermath of the explosions. My condition was so serious that I didn't know my husband had died for three months, as the doctors advised my family to keep the news from me. I have since moved back in with my parents and I look after myself using my own income. I see myself in a better position compared to other widowed women since I do not have any children. But what about all the other young widowed women who have children? Who will support them?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Susan Retik Honored by President Obama

It was so exciting! I had no idea that I would be called out... Susan Retik emailed me today after President Obama made special mention of her at a White House ceremony during which she was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal for her work with Afghan widows. It's the second highest honor that can be bestowed on an American citizen.

"Susan Retik’s husband was killed when his plane was flown into the World Trade Center on September 11th. And nobody would have blamed Susan if she had turned inward with grief or with anger," President Obama said. "But that isn’t who she is. So instead, she and another widow started Beyond the 11th, and this is a group that empowers Afghan widows affected by war and terrorism. And Susan says,'These women are not our enemy.'"

The pride at Principle Pictures is twofold. We are ecstatic that Susan is being recognized for her commitment to building a lasting peace in Afghanistan. She deserves it! And we're reminded of our own role in helping to highlight the power of the individual as someone who saw BEYOND BELIEF nominated Susan for the award.

Today's White House ceremony kicks off a year-long, high-visibility 10th Anniversary of 9/11 campaign that is being launched by Susan’s foundation, Beyond the 11th, and us - Principle Pictures, producers of the BEYOND BELIEF documentary in which Susan’s story is featured. We have a shared mission: to use the power of media to inspire activism and education and encourage others to fulfill the President’s call to service.

At this important moment in America’s history, there is a real opportunity to help reshape the conversation about September 11th and the War on Terror, and do what we can to help eliminate the threat of terrorism. We hope you'll join our year-long campaign that's aimed at sparking meaningful public dialogue and citizen activism around peace in Afghanistan.

Congratulations, Susan! You continue to inspire us and so many others.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

In her first life, Sonali Kolhatkar was testing software for a NASA space telescope. That was before she turned to radio or to social and political activism for women in Afghanistan. Now, in addition to being the host and producer of KPFK Pacific's popular morning drive time program Uprising, Sonali is also the Co-Director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a US-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA).

Sonali's blog, Love and Subversion (shared with her Co-Director of the Afghan Women's Mission, Jim Ingalls), encompasses both current political topics and specifically the topic of Afghan women. It includes information about the Afghan Women's Mission and RAWA - the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Afghan Girls Brave Taliban Threats

Girls continue to fight for their right to education by attending secret schools - yet the threat to their lives is still very much a concern, even in secrecy.

Monday, June 28, 2010

We're on the Move!

When Kevin and I return from Iraq, we're coming back to our new office in Boston. Plymouth has been our home since I founded the company in my basement over 10 years ago. There's a lot of pride, countless memories, and a ton of tapes packed up in that U-Haul that's making its way up I-93 North today!

So thankful to everyone who made it happen -- Sean, Alyssa, Beth (Balaban), Kate, Danny, Jim (Sean's Dad), Alyssa's Dad, Andrew, and Dennis!! You all completely and totally rock!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Stray Cats Wanted

Our upscale community on the banks of the Tigris River is peaceful. Safe. Protected on all sides with only one way in. Or so we thought.

River rats don't need to show their badges to the Peshmerga guards at the checkpoint. When they're in the mood to get away, they just wade through the sewers and find a squat toilet to claw up through. The plump one that ran in front of my path on its way from the family room to the bedroom looked right at home. Yes, it had definitely vacationed here before.

Nose to tail this rat was at least a foot long. Threat advisory level: Red. First order of business: Shoes.

Kevin and Carmen jumped off the ping-pong table, trading in their paddles for a baseball bat and squeegie. Since there were no other weapons available, and the rat hunt needed to be documented, I took to higher ground and pushed record. I'd show you my video of the action, but the R-rated language isn't fit for our company blog. Sorry.

The rodent made a clean escape.

Rat: 1
Guardian House: 0

But, rat, know this: next time a stray cat wanders into the kitchen... we just might look the other way.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Electricity Revolution

Next to me on the couch is a plastic bag filled with samoon, the eye-shaped Iraqi bread that Umm Muhammad brings every morning—warm and soft. Now it is hardened from sitting in the hot sun all day. There’s a baseball bat resting nearby—put there by Carmen, a foreign correspondent and our housemate, who uses it to smack the flat bread over the front yard wall. On the other side, it lands with a soft thud, momentarily enveloped in a burst of dust. Even though Jadriya is the most exclusive area of Baghdad—it’s where President Jalal Talabani lives—the streets are dirt and littered with trash.

And the electricity is out, again.

From my seat on the living room couch that’s been moved outside, I can’t see the children playing on the street beyond the wall, but I can hear them—their shouts muffled by the constant hum of generators. “Generator city,” our colleague, Hatam, calls Baghdad.

It’s a rarity these days, but as I’m hanging out under the starless sky, three lights—red, yellow, green—begin to glow on the fuse box. That means city power is back. That means it’s OK to fire up the air conditioning. Any sense of excitement is tempered by the inevitable disappointment that will soon follow.

When we arrived in Baghdad almost three weeks ago, we enjoyed city electricity twenty-two hours a day. But as the mercury rises, so do the country’s power shortages. And they’re more than just an annoyance (I spent most of the night sleeping outside in the swinging chair below); they have the potential to wreak havoc with the external hard drives we use for editing. This morning, Kevin spent more than two hours trying to digitize the same fifteen minute clip. “The idea of editing here is a joke,” he tells me—responding to a "great idea" I had a few days ago.

Despite billions of dollars that have been spent to fix the power grid since 2003, officials are making the hard to swallow argument that Iraqis should be patient and wait at least another two years for a solution. Unable to find refuge from the searing summer heat (and often paying for electricity they can never enjoy), Iraqis are hot and pissed off. They're taking to the streets in what have become violent protests in some of the country's larger cities. One demonstrator calls it “an electricity revolution.”

No matter how often I hear this refrain, it bears repeating: Why can’t a country with the world’s third-largest oil reserves keep power plants running and provide basic services? Iraqis are demanding answers from the government–which itself is a source of simmering unrest. How well, they ask, is their democracy really working? Some signs: Riot police hit demonstrators in Nasiriyah with high powered water hoses a couple days ago, and since the election more than three months ago, there’s still no government in place as wrangling continues over who will become prime minister and who will be assigned to other key cabinet positions.

The idea of coming home to escape the problems that exist around you is a foreign concept here. My front yard living room is 117 degrees by 9am. But at least I can power up the generator and get the sluggish fans turning. The majority of Iraqis do not have this option. They can’t afford generators, and there isn’t enough electricity each day to keep meats from thawing and milk from turning sour.

Seven years after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein, the words “mission accomplished” are still difficult to utter. A senior official in Iraq’s defense ministry who has close ties to the U.S. told me in an interview yesterday, “Maybe it was better with Saddam. At least then we had power.” Are we really going to leave this country longing for Saddam?

As I’m typing just now, an Iraqi colleague walked up to my desk. “Guess what?” he said laughing. “Now we don’t have water!”

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A) Magic Wand B) Bomb Detector C) Magic Wand Bomb Detector D) None of the Above

Every day people tell us to be careful. That's because every day the bombs going off across the country make it into the news. Many of them are in Baghdad. Most of them are car bombs. Just today 27 people were killed.

Officials have known for a very, very long time that stopping car bombs is a top priority. That's why they invested in expensive bomb detectors, and outfitted every checkpoint with them. When I say expensive, I mean more-than-the-price-of-your-car-expensive. They're between $20,000 and $60,000 a pop. And when I say every checkpoint, I mean the roadblocks that are set up about every ten feet or so. Seriously, it's hard to go more than a minute without encountering a checkpoint. That means every car driving through the city has dozens of opportunities to be sniffed out for TNT and other explosives that will turn the vehicle into a deadly inferno.

So why are there still so many car bombings?

This device has come to be known as the Magic Wand Bomb Detector. You don't need to be an explosives expert to know that any self-respecting bomb detector could never inspire you to want to say, "Abracadabra." You also don't need to be an explosives expert to question how it could possibly work when it looks like a squirt gun with a 1970s TV antenna sticking out of the barrel.

I won't keep you guessing. The device is total junk. The U.S. military determined about a year ago that the magic wand is just as likely to make a bunny materialize from thin air as it is thwart a suicide bomber heading to a shopping market near you. But that doesn't stop Iraqi policemen and soldiers from using it. Everywhere.

Here's video of a policeman in Samarra. If you watch very closely, you'll notice that the antenna swivels toward the truck. What does that mean? RUN! This truck is going to blow!

Of course, the truck isn't going to blow, and this policeman can't even be bothered to pretend anything is wrong. Usually when the antenna points toward your car, you get pulled over for a more extensive (read: waste of time) search. When one soldier was asked why dogs aren't used instead, he lamented turning Baghdad into a zoo. Better, then, to turn it into a morgue.

The only good news part of the story is that the head of the British company that made the device has been arrested for fraud.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Blog V Doc

These stories I've been sharing -- and will continue to share -- from the road often have very little to do with the actual subject matter of the documentary we're filming. That's intentional. I don't want to give the whole story away, and I'm contractually obligated not to!

Filming here has all the highs and lows I enjoy about the roller coaster filmmaking business itself. The common wisdom among journalists is to come in wanting 100%, expect 75%, and settle for 50%. Good thing I came in wanting 200%, so now I only have to settle for 100%.

We're filming every day, and so is a local crew we've hired. They are incredibly hardworking and talented, and the cameraman's back story is fantastic. Remember when the guy hucked a couple shoes at President Bush when he visited Baghdad at the end of 2008? Yasser, our local cameraman, is the guy who captured the best video that day. Not only did he get the shoe throwing incident itself, but when security guards wrestled the size 10 journalist to the ground, Yasser jumped into the fray. A picture his brother took shows other cameramen backed up against the wall--far from the action--while Yasser stands over it. (In case you're wondering... the shoe thrower spent nine months in jail. Even though he was tortured behind bars, he says he has no regrets. Hitting someone with a shoe in this society is one of the most degrading things you can do to them. Symbolically it says, "You are the scum of the earth.")

Yasser and his producer brother are going places we simply can't, returning each night with a handful of tapes for us to review and give feedback on. It's frustrating not to be able to film everywhere we want, but it's stupid to try.

I'm considering staying on longer not because we're not getting what we need, but because what we are getting is so important to the film and our understanding of what is happening with those Iraqis who worked alongside American soldiers and diplomats as translators, cultural advisers and engineers.

These Iraqis - our Iraqi allies - have already suffered so much because of their ties to the U.S. And as the U.S. withdrawal gets underway, there is good reason to believe their suffering will intensify. The List Project founder, Kirk Johnson, has come out with a damning new report, Tragedy on the Horizon. His warning alarm is justified, and supported by the horrors happening on the ground.

Just yesterday a man who worked as a U.S. military translator was shot and killed by his own sons. We're following this terrible story today -

Friday, June 18, 2010

Sights and Sounds of Baghdad

The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen.

-- Abul Tayyeb al-Mutanabi

Ever hear a new sound -- one you've never heard before but you know you'll never forget? It happened to me once in Etretat, thanks to the shingle beach. The new sound then? Water crushing the small stones. And it happened to me again today, thanks to a coffee vendor who turned his two porcelain coffee cups into castanets while walking up and down Mutanabi Street.

Central Baghdad's Mutanabi Book Market -- it's named after a classical Arab poet, so it's not surprising that this is considered the intellectual capitol of the city. Scholars, students, soldiers and shopkeepers come to buy and sell magazines, maps, magnifying glasses, prayer beads, video games, stuffed animals, and--of course--books. There aren't too many women around, but men are hanging out in cafes, smoking and playing board games. Pictured: Two boys have their pet bird in tow while shopping for books with their grandfather.

All motor vehicles -- except speeding military humvees and pickups-- have been barred from the area since a 2007 car bomb.

I think the ice vendors have one of the toughest jobs in the neighborhood. An umbrella cart and wool blanket shield the ice block from the sun. But it was still almost 120 degrees today.

Below: A woman balances a block of ice on her head.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Kurdistan’s Rappin’ Baby ‘Bama

It’s three o’clock in the afternoon and 18-year-old Kayan is just emerging from his bedroom. It was another busy all-nighter for this Kurdish musician – writing lyrics for a new rap song about life in Iraq.

Terrorist, Kayan’s first political song, was the way he channeled his anger and sadness when a friend’s father was killed by militias in Baghdad. He hasn’t decided on a title for this new song yet.

“It’s about wishes and askin’ God to bring me back to a day when I can fix things,” he says. “I don’t know how much I remember, but I’m gonna spit some.”

When Kayan sings, his waifish frame is typically in constant motion—a loose silver wrist watch sliding up and down his undulating arm, black dress shoes tapping below well-pressed jeans. This kid is definitely talented, and he carries himself with an endearing confidence.

“I brought hip-hop and rap to Kurdistan,” he tells me with a wide grin. “Aw-ight,” he adds before I have a chance to react. It’s the first time I’ve heard this uniquely American urban English in Iraq, and Kayan has all the right body language to pull it off. Nothing about it would seem strange – except, I suppose, that I’m in northeastern Iraq, not Brooklyn or Compton, and Kayan is a dead ringer for Barack Obama.

If hip-hop was going to start somewhere in Kurdistan, it’s appropriate that it started here in Kayan’s home city, Sulaymaniyah. Suly (what the locals call it) is considered the cultural center of Kurdistan, the autonomous region of northern Iraq that’s tucked into the Azmar mountains. Kids may have been exposed to rap on the internet (Kayan first discovered 50 Cent’s In Da Club online), but before Kayan and his friends started performing, no one was rapping live. And while his bedroom recording studio is still the center of his operations, he opened a “real” studio last year, and convinced a local radio station to play his music. He sings, he mixes, he masters... but most of all he loves writing lyrics.

Let’s just imagine this won’t ever happen… all the family sittin’ down and laughin’… Take me back to the days when I was a little kid….I could use one wish just to fix things a little bit…

At a time when hip hop critics in the U.S. decry the genre’s lack of political substance, Kayan and his friends are turning up the political heat. Like Grandmaster Flash in the 1980s, the youth in Kurdistan—in Iraq—still have something to say, and they want to share it with the world.

For many years, the flower of our hopes was downtrodden, the fresh rose of spring was the blood of the youth…

These words, though, aren’t Kayan’s. They belong to his great-grandfather, Piramerd, the famous Kurdish philosopher, poet and journalist. Piramerd’s face is etched on buildings here, and there’s even a holiday in his name.

“He’s the legend. We have art in our veins – in our blood. I brought hip hop and he brought poetry,” Kayan says, understandably proud of his family heritage. “In our family, there’s a lot of poets, singers – only me rapper – so, that’s something cool.”

Six decades after his grandfather found inspiration from the hardship of his people, Kayan draws from that same emotional well.

There’s a proverb that defines Kurdish life, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. When elephants make love, the grass also suffers.”

God, can I get a wish? 30 million people have one wish. It’s peace.

Kayan is the grass in this part of the world. That makes his music something worth listening to. And his Obama good looks make him one... well, two... in a million.

Agony of De-Feet

Good thing Kevin brought all those anti-inflammatories...

Not a good day for our driver, either. This happened on the streets of Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan (in northern Iraq) just before he was pulled over by the cops for an illegal turn. We're heading back to Baghdad first thing in the morning where, ironically, it may feel a bit safer.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I Think We're Going to Need a Bigger Tunnel

The trip to the military's media social should have taken about 5 minutes. But since the bus transporting us (17 international journalists) couldn't fit through Slayer Tunnel, we enjoyed the 45-minute scenic tour through Baghdad's Victory Base Camp... past the True Value Hardware store, Paris Boutique and bowling alley... alongside the never-ending rows of concrete T-walls... and, finally, a right onto Vigilant Road toward the opulent Al Faw Palace and "the juicer" (see picture below - don't you wish you had a massive orange?).

As I met and mingled with our military's impressive key leaders and senior staff on a beautiful deck overlooking Saddam's "Water Palace," a band (whose sole purpose is to increase morale around the country) played hits from the Eagles and Pink Floyd, and some guys hit golf balls into the lake. Our conversations were interrupted by this request: please bow your heads, the chaplain will now say a prayer.

I found myself taking in every word in a way that I'm not used to - "Let us be guided by truth and fairness in our responsibility as the media... and let us move forward in a spirit of oneness... that this country will be made whole... and let us be safe until we meet each other once again." Simple. Moving. And if ever there were a good place to pray, Iraq is it.

While we enjoyed the rest of the BBQ, our media escort tried to arrange a smaller bus to take us back to our cars. No luck. And the tunnel wasn't getting any bigger. Back on the scenic route, she shared stories with me about her 2-and-a-half-year-old son back home in Manhattan, Kansas... once when they were talking on video skype, he thought she looked thirsty, so he poured apple juice all over the computer. And since he's really just beginning to talk, she has trouble making out a lot of his words - the funny pronunciations unique to him aren't familiar enough to her. She can't wait to see him for two weeks in July - but then she's coming back - and like so many other mom and dad soldiers, she'll be here well past the poorly understood withdrawal in August.

GPS Tracker

Before leaving for Iraq, I was thinking that it'd be great to implant a GPS tracking device... in my arm or leg, behind my ear. Anything external can be taken from you, and there are certain areas that mandate alerting others about your whereabouts.

Video Above: Martin Chulov from the Guardian alerted London about our travels into Abu Ghraib.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Hard Core Rural Iraq

We headed west out of Baghdad today - toward Anbar Province, birthplace of the Sons of Iraq movement. Also known as the Awakening Council or Sahwa, the Sons of Iraq are Sunni Arabs who once took up arms against the United States, but then joined forces with us to fight Al Qaeda.

Iraqi officials refused to let us into the area without a military escort. "If you go in there alone, you won't make it out alive," the Baghdad Commander told our translator on the phone this morning. (Picture Above: Kevin gets into an Iraqi Army humvee)

Here's what we knew going in: A man and his two sons were shot to death at their home in al-Zaidan village, a farming area of Abu Ghraib. This is still like Iraq's Wild West. Suspicions were that the killers got the wrong guy... that they really wanted the dead man's brother who is a known Sons of Iraq leader.

But what the news story did not share was this: Three days ago, the U.S. military drew attention to this home when they came searching for weapons. None were found, but the family was spooked by how the "visit" would be perceived, and ended up asking American soldiers for help because of it. At this point whether Sons of Iraq members are targeted because of sectarian violence alone or because of some connection to the U.S. - real or perceived - is impossible to figure out.

Here--as in most of our own lives--perception is everything.

As we filmed an animated discussion with village leaders in the back yard, ten Iraqi soldiers and MPs stood in a circle around us. Six humvees were parked in the front near the porch where about 40 mourners sat quietly in three rows of white plastic chairs. This is day two of the funeral, and, as Muslim tradition calls for, it will last for one more day.

The victims were sleeping outside on the ground -- escaping the oppressive summer heat -- when the gunmen attacked early yesterday morning. And it was there on the ground -- in their backyard where we now stood -- that they were killed. As we said our good-byes, we navigated around seven bullet holes left in the hardened dirt, sensing that this is a crime unlikely to see any justice.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Events of the Day

Here are some of the things we've experienced over the last 24 hours: called for: Widespread Dust. And there was - thanks to a sand storm last night that blanketed everything (including our laptop computers!) in a thin layer of dirt. Lots of masks being worn on the streets today - which have an eerie orange glow.

A cockroach in our house was so big, we weren't sure whether to kill it or charge it rent. Our housemate, Carmen Gentile, did the deed, smashing the beast with his flip flop. Carcass remains at the bottom of the stairs. (As you can tell from our living room below, we do have lots of room for extra house guests.)

This afternoon we heard about a killing in Abu Ghraib (the rural farm area, not the city). Information we had linked the victims to America, and we wanted to learn more. Our translator called the Shiekh in the area who arranged for us to film the funeral and talk with the family. I borrowed an abayah (the shapeless black cloak women here wear), Kevin changed from his heavily pocketed cameraman pants into jeans, and we were on our way. But we never made it. Iraqi police at the Abu Ghraib checkpoint told us it was too dangerous to continue without an escort. And they weren't going to give us an escort without a letter from the Baghdad commander - something that could take days to get. So, we turned around and on the way home stopped for coffee at the CNN house, drank a Pepsi with the Al-Jazeera crew, and got a close look at the car bombing that rocked the Al-Hamra Hotel back in January pushing news crews out.

We're learning that the common expression "Inshallah" (God willing)usually means "Ain't sh-t gonna happen today."

Best quotes of the day come from Martin Chulov (The Guardian):

"Everything here contradicts everything you think you know."

At a checkpoint in the International Zone, an Iraqi soldier asked: "Do you have any weapons?" "Only a pen," Martin replied with a smile.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Winged Man

"Let's meet at the Winged Man," or "See you at the Winged Man in 20 minutes," or "The driver is almost at the Winged Man, let's go."

Such is the talk around travel to/from the Baghdad International Airport which we did yesterday to meet General Fadel Barwari, the commander of the Iraqi Special Operation Forces (ISOF).

The Winged Man is a statue of Abbas Ibn Firnas, Iraq's very own Icarus. Back in the first century, Ibn Firnas tried to fly by sticking feathers onto a wooden frame (like a glider). He didn't succeed. But he didn't die either.

And I think that's the best way to sum up our last 24 hours. We didn't accomplish much. But we didn't die either. And, hey, Ibn Firnas had a crater on the moon named after him!

After a quick start out of the gate our first day here, we've been humbled by the reminder of just how difficult it is to get things done in Iraq. And it didn't help that we were stranded at the airport overnight because we'd missed the midnight curfew (good laughs, though, at the karaoke bar watching men from Fiji butcher Scorpian hits).

And there are reminders all around of how many people have some of the toughest jobs on the planet. Take General Fadel. As commander of ISOF, units that have been trained by U.S. Special Forces since 2003, much of the future security of the country is resting on his shoulders. And he's starting to fly...

Friday, June 04, 2010

Welcome Back to Baghdad

There’s a saying here in Iraq that goes something like this, “Money is your country.” What it means is: If you have money, you can feel at home everywhere you go. As soon as we touched down in Baghdad, it was clear that airport employees spend a good deal of time trying to make money their country. And we were an easy target. Too many cameras. Not enough paperwork.

It was 119 degrees in Baghdad today. And there is no amount of dryness that keeps that from feeling anything but suffocating. Between the heat, two days of travel, and our extended stay, we thought we’d ease ourselves in. I had definitely led Kevin (D.P.) to believe that today would be a “get yourself acclimated” kind of day. But ten minutes into his afternoon snooze, I pulled the plug on acclimation. Sheikh Moustafa al-Kamal Shabib, a leader in the Sons of Iraq (or Sunni Awakening), was ready to share his experiences.

(My favorite photo of the day is Moustafa using his cell phone as a mirror to adjust his keffiyeh before the interview.)

I have to admit, interviewing Moustafa was a slight detour from the focus of our film (cases of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis drawn from The List Project), but I was excited to hear what he had to say. His story—and others like it—speak to the complexity of America’s involvement and moral obligation here, and I like the discomfort their experiences reveal.

On the way to his home in Arab Jabour, a suburb of South Baghdad, we passed several deserted farms—one belonged to a Palestinian rewarded by Saddam Hussein for killing Jews.

Two years ago we never would have made it out of this neighborhood alive. It was infested with global jihadists. Now, in part because of men like Moustafa, we can travel here. As a partner with American troops in the fight against Al-Qaeda, Moustafa helped turn the tide of war to favor the U.S. He and about 80,000 other Sons of Iraq were paid by the Pentagon and lauded by President Bush as the future of the country. Now America is preparing to pull out of Iraq, and men like Moustafa are being picked off one-by-one by Al-Qaeda. This year alone his son was poisoned, and he has survived two car bombings—one was captured on camera by U.S. soldiers and he showed it to us on his cell phone.

We left Moustafa at sunset and returned to our flat which is in the most protected part of the city. It’s the only area you can walk around freely without risk of kidnapping or death. There’s even a little bodega next door where sodas and snacks can be put on a tab that’s paid up at the end of each week. Every major news organization still working in Iraq is here (since the Hamra Hotel was bombed in January), and we’re sharing a house with some other foreign journalists who know how to host a dinner party: sheesha, G&T and four different kinds of pizza. Now that’s what I call a welcome back to Baghdad.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Hands to Hearts

Laura Peterson, Executive Director of Hands to Hearts International, tells the story of how she founded HHI - inspiring us to think about how we can make a difference with a little courage and and insight.

Hands to Hearts International is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the health and well-being of orphaned and vulnerable children and economically disadvantaged women around the globe.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

On the Road for Kids

Since we can't say too much about the work we're doing in Thailand/Burma, I've been enjoying posting stories to my daughter's blog. The entries are written for Isabelle - who is almost three - but I think the stories, videos and pictures may be of interest to adults, too - especially if you want to share the stories with your own kids.

Friday, May 07, 2010

It's Mango Season in Thailand

We are in Thailand right now filming with Physicians for Human Rights. And since much or what we are filming is too sensitive to discuss right now, I thought I'd talk about mangoes! It is mango season here, after all. And when I'm not making documentary films, I crave things related to fitness and health. My fitness blog has the whole story:

Monday, May 03, 2010

U.N. Review of Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

A series of events focused on abolishing nuclear weapons unfolds in conjunction with the U.N. conference to strengthen the 40-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

An International Planning Committee comprised of NGO's from around the world organized a two day international conference on Nuclear Abolition, Peace and Disarmament - scheduled to fall on the eve of the NPT review at the United Nations. The conference was held at the Riverside Church in New York City, where peace leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. have spoken in the past. A wide array of participants, including the Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban-Ki Moon, spoke at last weekends conference. Additionally, thousands of Hibakusha - Japanese atomic survivors - were in attendance for both the conference and for the rally and march on May 2nd.

The rally took place in Times Square, followed by a march through the street of New York City from Times Square to the U.N. Tens of thousands of participants flooded the streets of New York to send a message to the world: By 2020, all nuclear weapons must be abolished off the face of the Earth.

Representatives of the world's nations gathered today at the U.N. to commence the 5-year NPT review.

Poison Attacks on Afghan School Girls

At least 88 girls in Kunduz, Afghanistan were sent to hospitals after a series of poison gas attacks. This recent rash of terror in girls schools highlights the continued challenges that Afghan girls will face in the future, even if the Taliban are defeated. A police officer said that the attacks were likely not a Taliban initiative, but rather "the act of miscreants who just don't like the idea of girls being educated." The deep-rooted opposition to the education of women and girls remains an important issue that needs to be addressed in the culture at large.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A New Way to Breakthrough

Breakthrough is an innovative, international human rights organization using the power of popular culture, media, and community mobilization to transform public attitudes and advance equality, justice, and dignity. Through initiatives in India and the United States, Breakthrough addresses critical global issues including violance against women, sexuality and HIV/AIDS, racial justice, and immigration rights.

Watch one of their videos about an HIV+ woman who works to make a positive change.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Principle Pictures News

There has been a lot going here in Plymouth in the last couple of months!

We received a grant from the Cinereach Foundation for our film What Tomorrow Brings, which is still in the early phase of production.

Due to the success of working with our interns throughout this year, we're starting a more structured Intern Program - offering local students the opportunity for a hands-on experience in the world of documentary.

The Promise to Freedom is taking form - we are currently cutting a rough cut of the film. As we watch the stories take shape, we are more excited than ever about the project.

Stay tuned for more PP news! It's going to be a busy summer.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Teenagers Train to be Midwives in Afghanistan

Girls as young as 16 train to become midwives in rural Afghanistan. While most teenagers are watching movies, going on dates, and playing sports, these young women are saving lives. Midwives-in-training from the Institute for Health Sciences (IHS) at Herat Regional Hospital and the Community Midwifery Education (CME) program in Ghor Province are sending out students to deliver babies - practical training for a group of young health workers that could potential help lower the staggeringly high mortality rate of mothers in rural Afghanistan. Both programs are sponsored by World Vision - an organization where you can give gifts to help support the lives of those most in need.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Two Women In Al-Mazraq | WFP | United Nations World Food Programme - Fighting Hunger Worldwide

250,000 people flee their homes during the recent conflict in northern Yemen. Many of them remain in World Food Programme shelters, afraid to return home.

Two Women In Al-Mazraq - Video

Monday, April 05, 2010

What We've Brought Women in Afghanistan

Women like Malalai Joya insist that, although life was hard before US invasion, life has gotten even harder since we've been there. Here's a taste of life for women under the Taliban rule in Afghanistan today: How would you feel if...

-you had your fingers cut off because you had painted your nails

-you were whipped in public for showing your ankles

-you weren't allowed to laugh loudly, or wear high heels that made any noise

These are just a taste of some of life's hardships. Read the list of restriction placed on both men and women under the Taliban regime.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Self-Immolation: A Cry for Help

Stephanie Sinclair, an American photojournalist known for gaining unique access to the most sensitive gender and human rights issues around the world, creates a stunning and horrific sense of the tortured and hopelessness pervading the lives of women in Afghanistan. See the result of a situation in which burning oneself seems like the better option than most.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Empowerment Through Film

A young Ugandan refugee in a Kenyan camp recently visited Geneva for UNHCR events linked to International Women's Day. Kate Ofwono gave an interview about how completing a film in the Participatory Video Program run by FilmAid International helped empower her and gave her strength to help others. FilmAid uses the power of the visual medium to educate and empower communities in crisis.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Update on Massachusetts film tax credits

The Massachusetts Joint Committee on Revenue voted down House Bill 3854 on March 11. The Bill proposed to cut state tax credits for the film industry. However, Governor Deval Patrick still supports capping the tax credits in his budget proposal. Read the Boston Globe’s coverage and continue to check the Massachusetts Film Office website for more updates.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Forgotten War

Dahr Jamail, an independent U.S. reporter in Iraq, wrote recently on his site about the Iraq war as the 'Forgotten' War. As Afghanistan takes center stage in the U.S. media outlets, the occupation of Iraq takes a backseat. Yet, 130 thousand American troops and 114 thousand private contractors still remain in the country and approximately 400 Iraqi civilians continue to die each month. In addition to a lack of electricity and drought in-country threatening 2 million people with the possibility of no power or water, an astounding 4.5 million Iraqis have been displaced as refugees in other countries.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Act on 8 and WCI

There are 8 international development goals that 192 United Nations members states and at least 23 international organizations have agreed to achieve by the year 2015.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs):

1 Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger

2 Achieve Universal Primary Education

3 Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women

4 Reduce Child Mortality

5 Improve Maternal Health

6 Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Other Diseases

7 Ensure Environmental Sustainability

8 Develop a Global Partnership for Development

Act on 8 is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of the Millennium Development Goals. Find out how to take action on any one of the 8 goals.

Women's Campaign International (WCI) is a US based non-profit organization dedicated specifically to goal 3. WCI works in emerging democracies and post-conflict regions around the world to advance opportunities for women to actively participate in public advocacy and political processes.

Find more videos like this on Women in Afghanistan

Hear how women in Afghanistan would like to be empowered.

Find out more about WCI

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Peace Through Business

The Institute of Economic Empowerment of Women (IEEW), a non-profit focused on empowering women to "grow" their own businesses, has designed the PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS training program. The 2010 program will take place in Rwanda and Afghanistan as a three-part business education program for 30 entrepreneurial women in each country. The women will participate in an 8-week training course culminating in the completion of an in-depth business plan. 30 of the women will then travel to the United States to participate in Leadership Development conference - each women being matched with an American woman business owner to provide a mentorship for the duration of the week and beyond. The hope is that, upon returning their home countries, the women will then Pay it Forward by educating other women in their country.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Brattleboro, Vermont hosts the Women's Film Festival

This month Brattleboro, Vermont hosts the 19th annual Women’s Film Festival from March 12 to 21. Proceeds from the event benefit Brattleboro’s Women’s Crisis Center, which helps women and children that have suffered from domestic or sexual abuse. The festival will present a variety of feature and documentary films. Check out the schedule for more information.

Out of its many films, the festival will feature Quest for Honor, a documentary by Mary Ann Smothers Bruni that premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. The film reveals the practice of honor killing in northern Iraq, which continues to take place, and follows a group of women as they work to end this brutal tradition. Bruni will attend the screening, which will be held on March 13 at 7:00 pm.

Friday, March 05, 2010

V-Day: I am an Emotional Creature

Eve Ensler, creator of "The Vagina Monologues", has organized a global movement to stop violence against women and girls, called V-Day. V-Season lasts from February 1st through April 30th, and invites women and girls to host their own events. In conjunction with this project, she has released a book in tandem called I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Lives of Girls Around the World - a fictional collection of monologues based on stories inspired by girls around the globe. Watch Eve speak during a 2004 TED talk about menopause, violence against women and finding happiness.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

TED Conference features docs - including The Promise of Freedom

Thanks to support from the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, our new film, The Promise of Freedom, was featured at the latest TED Conference. Mariane Pearl (activist, author and Exectuive Producer of the documentary, Resilient), Trevor Neilson and Michael Massing led a discussion about how filmmaking and journalism can help promote tolerance, hope and progress.

Message to MA Legislators - Don't Cap Film Tax Credits

This morning Beacon Hill legislators are listening to arguments on a bill to cap film tax credits in Massachusetts. These credits are vital to the growth of the film industry in the state, and cutting them will only send studios a message that Massachusetts isn't serious about attracting filmmakers.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Oral Testimony on the Power of Women and Girls

Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, spoke before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy and Global Women's Issues of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (there needs to be an acronym for that) on the 23rd of February. Watch her address to the committee as she advocates for the powerful agents of change and development that are the women of Afghanistan.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits the Middle East

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent tour through the Middle East has prompted much discussion, including conversations about women’s rights in the region.

Before embarking on her trip, Secretary Clinton spoke at the International Conference on Afghanistan in London on January 28, where she spoke about women’s roles in bringing change to Afghanistan:

“I also believe very strongly, as is apparent in what I say about this issue, that women have to be involved at every step of the way in this process. To that end, I unveiled our Women’s Action Plan. It includes initiatives focused on women’s security, women’s leadership in the public and private sector; women’s access to judicial institutions, education, and health services; women’s ability to take advantage of economic opportunities, especially in the agricultural sector. This is a comprehensive, forward-looking agenda that stands in stark contrast to al-Qaida’s recently announced agenda for Afghanistan’s women, attempting to send female suicide bombers to the West.”

This excerpt, along with Clinton’s full remarks from the event, can be found here.

Although women’s rights and leadership were discussed at the Afghanistan conference, the New York Times reports that while in Saudi Arabia on February 16, those subjects did not come up when Clinton visited a women’s college in Jidda. “Maybe because it was Hillary Clinton, people wanted to ask her about issues bigger than whether Saudi women can drive,” student Duaa Badr suggests. Check out the full article here.

Finally, while Clinton’s comments about Iran “moving toward a military dictatorship” picked up plenty of media coverage, it is a recently proposed “Family Protection” bill in Iran that has angered the Iranian women’s website Change for Equality (also known as One Million Signatures.) The bill would allow men in Iran to take additional wives without the knowledge or consent of their first wives. Change for Equality is collecting signatures for a petition here. For more coverage of the protest against the bill, check out recent coverage in the New York Times.

Half the Sky Event

Celebrate International Women's Day on March 4th at a special one-night event presented by CARE and inspired by stories from the New York Times bestseller "Half the Sky". Featuring musical performances, celebrity commentary and the world premiere of "Woineshet," a short film by Marisa Tomei and Lisa Leone. Also with appearances from India.Arie, Maria Bello, Diane Birch, Michael Franti, Dr. Helene Gayle, Angelique Kidjo, Nicholas Kristof, Marisa Tomei, and others. Join in the effort to help women and girls everywhere turn oppression into opportunity at select theaters on March 4th, 7:30pm. For more information, look to the NCM Fathom site.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Malalai Joya: A Woman Among Warlords

Violation of human rights and oppression is ubiquitous, but "war is no gentle tool for transnational social engineering". Certain aggressive activists and feminists insist that waging war will improve the status of women in Afghanistan. Although modest gains have been made for women since the fall of the Taliban, their situation remains frightening and uncertain.

Malalai Joya, a women's rights activist in a country where few women's rights exist to begin with, informs Westerners: "Your governments have replaced the fundamentalist rule of the Taliban with another fundamentalist regime of warlords." The claim that the US and its allies have brought justice, democracy and women’s rights to Afghanistan “is all a lie, dust in the eyes of the world," says Joya.

Malalai's life is marked by more than just the average oppression, second-class citizenry, and social scrutiny that most Afghan women experience. Joya has been the target of 5 assassination attempts since 2003. At one time the youngest member of parliament in Afghanistan, Malalai now lives on the run. Constantly in danger, she hides beneath a burqa when traveling at home as do many women - in addition to her 5 body guards.

It isn't without reason that her life seems to be so valuable. Malalai has been writing and speaking out around the globe about the situation of the Afghan people during last decade. Joya published her memoirs A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice in Fall 2009, revealing the many tragedies of her country, most notably the lingering plight of women. She recently spoke at Brown, MIT, Harvard, and Emerson as part of her book release to raise awareness about the real implications of U.S. occupation in Afghanistan; a timely appearance considering President Obama's decision to increase troop presence by 30,000 in the past months.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Afghan Women's Writing Project

Allowing women a direct voice in the world: The goal of the AWWP is to encourage Afghan women to share their stories - a luxury rarely afforded to them without the fear of threat. Originally conceived by author Masha Hamilton during a trip to Afghanistan in 2008, the program connects Afghan women with talented women authors and teachers in the United States in secure online classrooms.

Change Our Story by Shogofa

I am one who faced those opposing my studies,
Humiliated by those who said
"A girl can't do anything."
I am one forced to accept the reality of today,
trying to be strong.

I am one who bent to my family's wishes,
Sacrificed my dreams in quietness.
But who still dreamt of success
Beyond reach.

I am one who dreams of peace, but am caged,
Desires to fly, but am female,
Still, I am one who flies against the wind of our time
And beats the challenge.
I am one who believes these black clouds will change into Spring.

I am one who vows to stop the tears of those who suffer from being women.
I am one who will free women whose dreams aren't
Already killed by their cages, women who still desire to fly.

They hide their stories behind their tears
They are not allowed words.
But I will tell their stories, and change our story.
I am one whose voice of today promises tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Indonesia and Australia Absorb Illegal Refugee Overflow

The number of Iraqis and other refugees from Afghanistan, Iran and Burma fleeing to Indonesia has greatly increased from 369 in 2008 to 2,504 in 2009. Refugee candidates applying to the UNHCR for resettlement must wait in a first country of asylum to be processed. Indonesia is a choice location due to the ease with which tourist visas can be procured. Additionally, a thriving human smuggling business provides transport for asylum seekers from Malaysia to Indonesia by boat. When the wait is months or even years, desperate refugees can pay up to $8,000 instead to be transported to the northernmost shores of Australia, thinking the chances of resettlement are better. Host countries struggle to deal with the problem of illegal refugees, while meanwhile refugees labor for freedom and a better life.

Because Good Stuff Happens

From peace negotiations in the Karabakh conflict to Ohio cheerleaders raising spirits to fight cancer, our world is filled with positive stories of hope, courage and change. Finally, there's a website devoted to telling these stories:

It's a chronicle of human achievement and positive news. What's better than that? The site went live yesterday, and already it's on my list of top five favorite news sites. Check it out, become a Facebook fan, and help founder Jarod Gordon succeed!

Monday, February 08, 2010

Mobile Cinema Helps Women in Mali

Outdoor screenings of films about children's and women's health travel from village to village in Mali to encourage dialogue about the harmful effects of female genital mutilation/cutting or FGMC.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Combating Maternal Mortality in Afghanistan

UNICEF developing a midwifery training program countrywide to help reduce one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in rates in the world.
In addition to the risks attributable to lack of transportation and familial/cultural issues, most women abide by the ban for attending male doctors which means that for 6 million child-bearing aged women, there are fewer than 16,000 skilled midwives. The new program aims to train female community health members in life saving delivery skills

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Girl Effect

The Nike Foundation, in conjunction with other organizations such as the United Nations Foundation and the Coalition for Adolescent girls, created The Girl Effect - a domino-like strategy that begins with young women and ends with a better world.

Although little research has been done about the impact of investments in girls on economic growth and the well-being of communities, the potential benefits are endless. When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as opposed to only 30 or 40 percent reinvested by men. With more than 600 million girls living in developing nations, there's a lot of opportunity for growth. Tune into The Girl Effect and become part of the movement that just might save the world.

Women Make Music in Herat

Afghan musician Jawad Tabesh runs a music training center dedicated to educating women in Herat despite threats from religious fundamentalists. Consisting of only a small room in an old apartment building, the center is a haven for the 10 women who dare to pursue their passion for music. However, Tabesh fights an uphill battle against conservative Islamists who believe singing is forbidden for women. Despite the struggle to secure funding and support, Tabesh is determined to keep providing an oppressed generation of women with the opportunity to pursue their creative desires.

Monday, February 01, 2010

OHCHR Opens Online Discussion: Women and Human Rights

February 1-28th: The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights launches online discussions aimed at identifying good practices contributing to the realization and advancement of respect, promotion and protection of Women’s Human Rights. Each week will be focused on a sub-theme.

Week 1 | National legal frameworks
Week 2 | Accountability
Week 3 | Access to justice
Week 4 | Summary, wrap-up and observations

Join the discussion on Women's Human Rights this month.

Screening of "View from a Grain of Sand"

Directed and Produced by Meena Nanji, award-winning "View from a Grain of Sand" was shot in refugee camps of Pakistan and the war-torn city of Kabul. Three remarkable Afghan women lead us through the maze of Afghanistan's complex history, informing this examination of how international interventions, war and the rise of political Islam have stripped Afghan women of their freedom over the last thirty years.

The screening will be followed by a Q&A with the director.
First Parish Church, UU, 10 Parish St, Meetinghouse Hill, Dorchester, MA 02122
Thursday, February 11, 2010
6:30pm - 9:30pm

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Great Facility Opens for Rural Afghan Women

Women in Bamyan, Afghanistan are celebrating a newly constructed community center, ARZU STUDIO HOPE. The unveiling happened on December 15th in front of 50 guests and Bamyan Govenor Habiba Surabi.

Funded with major support from Beyond the 11th*, this facility includes a Community Center, a Community Garden/Greenhouse, and a Sports/Wellness Complex. For the first time the women of rural Dragon Valley will now have access to indoor laundry, uch as an indoor "laundromat", a weaving room with looms, a tea room for socialization, and a large classroom for income-generating programs.

*Beyond the 11th was founded by Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, the two women featured in the film Beyond Belief.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Military Intelligence Oxymoron in Afghanistan

A new report titled Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan blasts America's intelligence gathering in Afghanistan. Written by Major General Michael Flynn, U.S. and NATO military intelligence chief in Afghanistan, the 26-page report says analysts are more like fortune tellers than informed, knowledgeable information gatherers. While damning, the report does offer positive steps for turning things around. "Analysts must absorb information with the thoroughness of historians, organize it with the skill of librarians, and disseminate it with the zeal of journalists.”

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

After Fallujah

The "Marlboro Marine" is how Marine Lance Corporal James Blake Miller came to be known after this iconic photo was taken of him by LA Times photojournalist Luis Sinco. This story of how the two men's lives became intertwined after the battle of Fallujah is beautifully told - powerful images, haunting sound design and music (written by Corporal Miller himself). "How I feel about the war today," Miller reflects, "I can sum up in one question. It's the same question that can be asked of Vietnam: What have we accomplished? What have we gained other than the loss of some damn fine people?"

Is Yemen the next Afghanistan or Somalia?

The BBC reports on how poverty, illiteracy and a growing Al-Qaeda network are the perfect storm to further destabilize a state already on the brink of failure.