Shame Echoes Iraq

The attack on the village has begun. A woman attempts to flee but is stopped by invading soldiers who shove her in front of a television camera for an interview. "We're going to tell our people back home about the kind of people we liberated," he explains.

Nearly frozen with fear, the woman haltingly answers questions.

This isn't news footage from Basra. It's from Ingmar Bergman's 1968 film Shame(Skammen). The woman is 28-year-old Eva (Liv Ullman), who's married to selfish Jan (Max von Sydow). Four years ago, they left their home to escape a war, but the war has followed.

The interviewer asks Eva about politics. "I don't have any public opinion," she says. And then, after some prompting, "We think that the war has gone on for so long that it's difficult to understand."

Over the past month, I've found myself thinking often about this little-known film. As Operation Iraqi Freedom rages across web browsers, we search for wisdom in art and history. Critics have contended Three Kings is the best cinematic primer on the war, and they're right. Shame isn't a lesson in geo-politics like Three Kings; it's a meditation on the nobodies.

ShameThe opening credits play to the pattering of gunfire. In the first scenes, as Eva and Jan prepare berries from their farm to sell, the dominant noises sound like warning bells. An alarm clock buzzes. Church bells clang. The phone rings repeatedly. Even if they understood these warnings, Eva and Jan couldn't do much in response. They're poor. Their car barely sputters, and the radio is dead. Jan believes news broadcasts don't affect them, anyway. So, as their adopted land is invaded, the two drive berries into town, almost oblivious to the armored trucks around them.It's never clear who invades, why they're invading, or whether the invaders are the "good guys." At one point, Jan flips when Eva helps a wounded soldier, who may be the "enemy," but he never explains who this enemy is. Of course, Jan has personal enemies and grudges, but what really has this soldier done to him?Jan and Eva attempt to flee after the invasion is in full swing. They are first delayed by the soldiers interviewing Eva, and then they are completely stopped by corpses and bombed vehicles blocking the road. They have no place to go for safety and end up returning home to read magazines and huddle when the bombs fall. They can only wait it out.One thing is clear: Jan and Eva don't determine what happens in their lives. They are powerless.It's easy to hear echoes of these scenes in accounts of our Iraqi war. Jan and Eva, terrified and confused, attempt to drive away, much the same way seven Iraqi women and children crowded into a van only a few weeks ago and didn't know to stop at a checkpoint. Civilians have been killed accidentally in this war, either because they were taken to be enemies or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many spend their time waiting. They wait for battles to begin and, then, to end. They wait for water to be turned on. The echoes are also in the United States. For every person I know who turns on BBC World News, there's someone preoccupied with honeymoons, grad school papers or other parts of daily life, just as Jan is more interested in the farm's chickens than in the threat of invasion.In Shame, the invaders fail, but the film doesn't end there. The victorious government puts dissenters and traitors in concentration camps. Our hapless twosome is arrested because Eva's interview proves they collaborated with the enemy. After they're violently interrogated, Jan and Eva wait in a room with other collaborators. An insensitive doctor enters, tripping over a man who has died on the floor. He asks if everyone has food and offers, "You have to excuse us, but we have recently moved in. The organization doesn't function that well yet." The main problem, according to the doctor, is infrastructure.Like Jan and Eva, Iraqis currently base their politics on surviving, attaining security, seeing the end of a long struggle. Many know they must put their own interests first. The Iraqis have stolen from their most treasured museum and ripped sinks out of hospitals. A Baghdad bank robbery went awry when crowds interrupted it to get their share of the money. People are also currying favor with whoever is in power. Men who were police for Saddam Hussein's government are now applying to be police for the American military. And like the rebel movement that kills Shame's mayor, religious and ethnic groups are already rising and fighting. The Iraqi people are adrift.In many ways, so are Americans. In conversations about the war, we dissect details and determine meanings, thinking our talk affects what's happening. The bare truth is we influence our country's decision makers as much as Eva influences hers.But if someone like Secretary Colin Powell did arrange a tete-a-tete with me, I'd tell him why this film is called Shame. Eva says she feels like she lives in a dream, but it's someone else's dream. She wonders what the dreamer will feel when he awakens. "Ashamed?" she asks. Then I'd give Mr. Powell my request: have the men in power manage the people and future of Iraq in such a way that when we awaken from this point in history, none of us feels ashamed. portrays civilians on the warfront, those who don't fight in battles but must defend themselves with the weapons of luck and chance. The bystanders. With his beautifully composed close-ups and lingering takes, Bergman shows us a group rarely depicted on the screen. War movies mostly tell soldiers' stories. The films about civilians focus on the harrowing struggles of Holocaust victims, the resistance efforts of a small group, or the lean times on the home front. In these movies, the protagonists are noble, and a sense of morality dictates their actions. Shameis different. Here, common people aren't noble. They're scared. Morality guides nothing. Survival drives everything.


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