It's a stone's throw to a decade of war for the United States, a time that has seen the American media paint an unendingly nightmarish portrait of an occupied Iraq—a place of rubble and waterless desert, where humanity is divided into a grotesque trinity of archetypes—the sinister insurgent, the bewildered innocent, and the noble, if inept, American GI.
The American media has offered viewers a feast of coverage to be sure—no IED has gone unfilmed, no raid on an insurgent stronghold unphotographed—but it has been a feast of wax fruit, counterfeit and malnourishing, while desperately important truths go unreported.
The Unreturned, a feature-length documentary directed by Minnesota-born filmmaker Nathan Fisher, pulls off a feat of remarkable cinematic agility. A bald and intimate look into the lives of Iraqi refugees displaced to countries like Syria and Jordan in the wake of the war, The Unreturned is an artful and unflinching penetration of the wartime prejudices that the American public has been made to wear like Kevlar flak jackets, a potent cinematic solvent to the grotesque caricature of the Iraqi that the Western media has sold the world.
"I thought of myself as informed about the war," says Fisher, "but I was floored by this massive refugee crisis I'd never heard of. I'd known the media had done a terrible job covering the war, but I couldn't believe how badly they'd dropped the ball on the largest consequence of it."
Originally from St. Louis Park, Fisher emerged from his undergraduate education at Pomona College with a degree in politics and a keen interest in the important stories that have a curious way of hiding in the periphery. Fisher enrolled himself in the film program at New York City's New School, and as he began to develop a thesis project, curious and dismaying intelligence began to reach him: Since the American invasion of Iraq, a full 20 percent of the nation had fled to find asylum in border countries—a number that, depending on the estimate, now sits at between 2 million and 4 and a half million people.
Who were these millions of displaced? What were their lives? And most important, could they ever return to their native land? The more Fisher looked, the more he found that the largest displacement of humanity in half a century was going unreported, lost in a bramble of domestic politics and fevered propaganda.
"I'd been frustrated with the opposition movement and how it focused on domestic politics," says Fisher. "Maybe it was inevitable from the beginning, but with the obsession with George W. Bush, and with getting a Democrat in office, the discussion became about America and not about Iraq. With domestic politics involved, it becomes like any other entrenched debate. And when that happens, you have to figure out another approach and hit people where they haven't built a defense."
Borrowing gear from the New School, booking a winter flight to Amman, Jordan, in late 2008, and cold-calling every Iraqi refugee he could find, Fisher embarked on a close-quarters portrait of the Iraqi displaced, and the resulting film is a masterstroke of tenderness, intimacy, and perspective that shows the collateral victims of a war gone awry in all their vulnerability, hope, and courage.
From over 40 hours of interview material, Fisher profiles a half-dozen Iraqi refugees living in Amman and Damascus, interviewing them at length as they go about their daily occupations. In their struggles to find work and provide for their families, Fisher's characters speak with stunning candor about the American occupation, the constant threat of reprisal from Iraqi insurgents, and the experience of being forced into exile from their homes, businesses, and native soil. Theirs are stories that have been outlined and suggested but rarely illuminated so carefully, and with an unflinching lens Fisher executes a bold undoing of a culture-war reportage that has accomplished little more than wholesale dehumanization, from which the American viewer can easily keep a safe distance.
"In the beginning, it was just a look at this gigantic refugee crisis, one of the largest in 60 years," says Fisher. "But it got more refined once I came back and was looking at the footage and had it translated. It became a story about the middle class, and how the insurgency has targeted them as a deliberate tactic to keep Iraq from being rebuilt."
Hear "refugee" and one likely imagines the tent camps of Mogadishu, endless hellscapes of the starved, naked, and half dead. But here the unreturned are English teachers and cooks, engineers and translators, Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians. They are Iraq's skilled middle class, the primary targets of the urban insurgency, the very people Iraq so desperately needs if it has a prayer of resurrection, and who now struggle in the refugee-choked cities of Amman and Damascus. This startling revelation is the film's most surprising boon. Unlike the caricatures, Fisher's characters are people of aspiration and despair, whose appetites and identities are fully dimensioned and, at last, achingly familiar.
"For any sort of realistic assessment of what's going on," says Fisher, "you need to know that Iraq was a middle-class country, and that these people had the same hopes and aspirations that Americans do. In order for Iraq to be rebuilt, these people need to return. They're the educated and the skilled. But they can't go back until Iraq is safe. It's the catch-22."
– David Hansen, Minneapolis City Pages, April 14, 2010