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Intimate 'Country' offers a compelling look at Iraq

Filmmaker Laura Poitras tells an Iraqi story that will break your heart. She traffics in intimacy where most other documentarians parse policy there, and with "My Country, My Country" she produces something close to a small masterpiece.

Her camera work is raw and rude and grainy, and it distinguishes this program as an inside job. We watch a man shuffle into his tiny kitchen in the mean dawn light to make tea. We see him bicker with his family. Daughters tease their father as only daughters can. We watch them all watch television by candlelight, dazed and transfixed, as the thuds of mortar and pops of small - arms fire erupt nearby.

Television is the ambient noise in their home. We realize this family gets much of its news the same passive way we get ours. We grasp how much their lives are circumscribed by boredom and terror.

To prepare this documentary, which airs tonight on PBS, Poitras spent eight months with this Sunni family of eight in Baghdad as the country got ready to vote in the elections of January 2005. Her focus is the father, a medical doctor referred to only as Dr. Riyadh for his own safety, as he runs for local political office while trying to hold his family together.

Riyadh is a respected member of his community who works in a free medical clinic. He wears a coat and tie and drives a car with a cracked windshield. We see him treating patients, counseling friends, standing outside the fence at the Abu Ghraib prison recording complaints from inmates about their treatment.

He's also a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party and is unalterably opposed to American occupation. Unlike many in its ranks, though, he is a passionate believer in a democratic future for his country and craves to participate in the upcoming elections. His disillusionment when his party decides to boycott the vote is profound.

Poitras begins her saga six months before the elections and monitors developments from all quarters. She gains access from the US military to watch it prepare for the vote. We see a seasoned UN observer make plans. We follow an Australian hired to provide security on election day travel to Kurdistan in the north of Iraq to buy arms. We watch Riyadh argue in a seminal debate within his party for its participation in the process.

There is great valor and sadness in this man. His integrity overwhelms us. We see a fatalism in his eyes that tempers his political passion. His life is tense, constantly, and viewers fear early in this show that his efforts will, somehow, be in vain.

In the end, his wife and daughter vote for him while he stays away from the balloting, presumably on orders from his party. We leave Dr. Riyadh a tragic figure and a spent man. "I don't have the energy anymore," he says, bereft.

Part of "P.O.V."
On: WGBH, Channel 2
Time: Tonight, 9-10:30

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