September 4, 2002

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Man-made disasters

AS HURRICANE LILI finishes stomping on Louisiana and Texas, Hurricane George prepares to blow with many thousand times the destructive and lethal force at points farther east. Among those on sandbagging detail is Scott Ritter, former chief weapons inspector for the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), whose new documentary, In Shifting Sands: The Truth about UNSCOM and the Disarming of Iraq, is playing at the Roxie. Ritter resigned from the U.N. in 1998, after seven years on the job, over what he describes as the sabotaging of UNSCOM's mission by the U.S. government. His campaign to expose "the truth about UNSCOM and the disarming of Iraq" has made this Republican and Marine Corps veteran a controversial figure, often marginalized in the major media. After publishing a book on the issue in 1999 and appearing at endless speaking engagements since, the choice to make a documentary was a simple one, Ritter told me: "The message just wasn't getting out." In Shifting Sands reiterates in detail the point he's tried to make to Congress for years: there is no credible threat from Iraq to justify war. In addition to Ritter himself, featured interviewees include Rolf Ekéus, former head of UNSCOM, and Iraq's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz.

Facing cynicism and obstinacy in Washington, Ritter has progressively sought a wider audience. Most recently, he traveled back to Iraq to urge the Iraqi leadership to accept the return of arms inspectors; then, on his way home, he spoke at the antiwar march in London, where a half-million people came out to voice dissent from a transatlantic imperial regime. Now Ritter's film is poised to make its own vital contribution to public understanding, though distribution has been problematic and screenings confined mainly to film festivals. "Critics who'd never even seen the film attacked it," Ritter says. "But anyone who has seen it is impressed. Audiences give it standing ovations and stay around for two and a half hours to ask questions and respond to it."

Ritter's modestly made but clear and compelling film argues that UNSCOM's job was largely finished back in 1995. It goes on to show how the Clinton administration manipulated and undermined the process for its own political gain, but the fact remains that by then Iraq posed nothing like the threat of its pre-Gulf War years, when, with the help of the United States and Britain, it built up a deadly arsenal that included one of the world's largest biological and chemical weapons programs. That, Ritter shows, is all history now, leaving us to ask why this administration would have us believe otherwise.

Free Philistine

Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, at 62 roundly considered one of the world's greatest living directors, was last month denied a visa to enter the United States. Welcome to Occupied Philistine. Immigration officials barred Kiarostami, who's visited the United States several times in years past, from attending the New York Film Festival's premiere of his latest work, Ten, and fulfilling engagements at Harvard University and Ohio State University's Wexner Center for the Arts, owing to new rules targeting the populations of more than two dozen mostly Muslim countries. (Ridiculously, the Harvard and Ohio dates had already been rescheduled once, after delays under the old rules!) In Paris, where he went to apply and wait out the visa process, the filmmaker was told they would need an additional eight weeks for a suitable background check – though such checks are routinely expedited for well-known public figures.

Scholar and filmmaker Jamsheed Akrami, who is making a documentary about Kiarostami and was to have accompanied him on his U.S. engagements, points to the sizable irony of picking on not just a world-famous artist, but one whose politics could not be more moderate. "In the past he has accepted the humiliation of fingerprinting and mug shots with understanding and patience," Akrami told me, "whereas some other Iranian artists have refused to come to this country because of that degrading reception. When I asked him once why he wouldn't object to fingerprinting, he simply said, 'It's their law. We have to accept it, the same way an American woman accepts covering her hair when she comes to our country.' "

Kiarostami's equanimity aside, do we really have to accept such bigotry and cultural isolationism? It's now up to Kiarostami's colleagues to respond. So far at least one has stood up. Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki has boycotted the festival. But, Akrami adds, "I think this support could be more meaningful if it came from American filmmakers, the same kind of support they displayed in Zhang Yimou's case [in 1990] when the Chinese government was trying to keep his film Ju Dou from Oscar contention."

Robert Avila

'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.

To read a Q&A with Scott Ritter, go to www.sfbg.com.