October 9, 2002

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Shifting sands
Former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter weighs in against war.

By Robert Avila

IN SHIFTING SANDS : The Truth about UNSCOM and the Disarming of Iraq, the new documentary film by Scott Ritter, former chief weapons inspector for the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq from 1991 to 1998 is currently playing at the Roxie. Ritter traveled last month to Iraq as a private citizen, addressing the Arab and Foreign Relations Committee of the Iraqi National Assembly on Sept. 8. He urged Iraq's leadership to adopt a "more welcoming posture" with respect to the unconditional return of U.N. weapons inspectors as the best way of countering the Bush administration's attempt to start an unjustified war using what he referred to as the "the rhetoric of fear and ignorance." I spoke briefly with Ritter by telephone on Oct. 3, about the making and timing of his new film.

Bay Guardian: Why did you decide to make the film?

Scott Ritter: The message just wasn't getting out. And in examining the various media available to me, the potential to reach a TV audience seemed an ideal.

BG: Was it after testifying to Congress without much success that you purposely began seeking a wider audience?

SR: Well, I had already written a book spelling everything out. I've been saying the same thing all along. In fact, if you read my book, you can see I predicted exactly what's happening right now. Simon an Schuster published the book. But it came out right at the time Kosovo exploded, in 1999. So Simon and Schuster gave up on the book.

BG: Did you know who to approach to get a documentary film made?

SR: A former ABC news producer, Tom Osborne, suggested the idea. The question was how to raise the money. I tried most of the major outlets. They all thought it would be too controversial for me to be making this film. Of course, I was one of the most credible people to be speaking on the issue. CNN and Frontline had spoken to me, but they edited the story wrong. They brought in people without any credibility to talk on Iraq.

BG: Where did you end up finding the money?

SR: I testified at a Congressional hearing in spring 2000, and a gentleman approached me afterward who'd been in the audience and asked me about the movie. I told him I hadn't been able to find the money to make it. He asked me, "How much do you need?" I had already figured on a budget (to cover travel costs, an original score, and so on) of a half a million dollars. The guy told me he didn't have that much but would put up $400,000. The problem was he was an Iraqi American, with government contacts in Iraq. I initially told him I couldn't use the money because I couldn't do anything to undermine the credibility of the film. There's been a lot of criticism about where the money came from, but the deal we eventually worked out preserved the film's independence. I met with a lawyer and went through the whole thing. The money was investigated by the FBI. I ended up taking the money as a loan only, no quid pro quo with the Iraqi government, and no editorial input at all. That's very rare for someone who puts up the majority of the money for a film to have no say in how it's made, but that was the deal. This is completely my movie.

BG: How has the film done so far?

SR: Well, so far it has only shown at film festivals. We'd had a lot of trouble finding a distributor. Critics attacked the film who had never even seen it. But anyone who has seen the film is impressed with the movie, and audiences give it standing ovations and stay around for two and a half hours to ask questions and respond to it.

BG: To what do you credit the film's appeal?

SR: I think my trip to Iraq recently brought attention to me and the film. I also think it's just these times we're living in.

BG: Since not only in your own expert opinion but in that of many other people around the world in a position to know a lot about Iraq's capabilities, there are currently no grounds at all for a preemptive strike against that country, to what do you attribute the Bush administration's, and before it the Clinton administration's, dogged determination to convince us otherwise?

SR: Well, first of all the Clinton administration has come out and said they do not believe there is any grounds for an invasion of Iraq. And while in office Clinton didn't push for a full-scale invasion. The big shift here is one of ideology. This is about the new American imperialism, American unilateralism, as spelled out in the Bush doctrine.

BG: You spoke last week at the march in London against a war, where I believe some estimates put it as a half a million people in the streets ...

SR: There was something like 350,000 people in the march and another 100,000 that came out to the park, so about a half a million is a reliable figure.

BG: How do you explain the fact that nothing like that number has turned out for similar demonstrations in the United States?

SR: I think the Bush administration has cowed the American public into submission, into believing opposing war is somehow un-American. I also think that because Saddam is truly a terrible dictator that people fear being construed as pro-Saddam. But there's also a general lethargy here. American democracy has lost its edge. I'm hopeful that we'll get it back, but the chances don't look terribly good at the moment.

'In Shifting Sands: The Truth about UNSCOM and the Disarming of Iraq' runs Saturday and Sunday, Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St., S.F. See Rep Clock, in Film listings, for show times.