“The oil is trying to disguise itself”

Impressionistic doc shot in aftermath of Kuwait war.

Divided into sections:
– A Capital City (pre-war helicopter shot)
– The War (bombing footage)
– After the Battle (post-war helicopter shot, big horns on soundtrack)
– Torture Chambers (implements and stories)
– Satan’s National Park (oil-drenched landscape)
– Childhood (traumatized survivors)
– And a smoke arose, like the smoke from a furnace (burning oil wells)
– A Pilgrimage (firefighting)
– A Dinosaur’s Feast (vehicles, opera music)
– Protuberances (boiling oil)
– The Drying Up of the Wells (capping wells with new hardware)
– Life Without Fire (some of the fires are re-lit, great narration here)
– I am so weary of sighing, oh lord, grant that the night cometh (finale)

Minimal narration, lots of slow motion. Great music selections from Mahler, Arvo Part, Prokofiev, Wagner, others. I know little about the Kuwait war apparently – why were the Iraqis torturing people to death? But these details are beyond the scope of the film.

Great point by Noel Murray:

Herzog was booed at the Berlin film festival after a screening of Lessons Of Darkness, and accused by the audience of being more interested in pretty pictures and philosophizing than in the human toll of the Gulf War. That’s not an entirely unfair criticism. Throughout his career, Herzog has shown less engagement with any one particular political conflict or social issue than with the bigger picture of how humans continue to fight with each other and with their environment. But then that’s why Lessons Of Darkness is still so beguiling, decades after the war that inspired it.


The words attributed to Blaise Pascal which preface my film Lessons of Darkness are in fact by me. Pascal himself could not have said it better… With this quotation as a prefix I elevate the spectator, before he has even seen the first frame, to a high level, from which to enter the film. And I, the author of the film, do not let him descend from this height until it is over. Only in this state of sublimity does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.

It’s Political Documentary Month! We will see how long that lasts. Katy asked if all Errol Morris’s films are about death (as far as I know they are) and commented that the square photos within a widescreen strip within our square TV across the room made her feel blind, so I brought up stylistic differences between Morris and Ken Burns, figuring we’re being punished for watching a theatrical feature in the same way we’d watch a television program. Afterwards, I showed her In The Loop, which I thought worked much better than S.O.P. on the TV screen. I was psyched to revisit it but she didn’t like at all, since it doesn’t count as satire on government if it’s exactly the way she imagines government works, and anyway it’s not funny.

S.O.P. was surprisingly tame. As one of the former prison guards points out, it’s not like they were beating prisoners or killing them, although that happens when the CIA bring in their own prisoner, a guy who they’re told “was never here.” Unfortunately for the CIA, photos of that incident leaked along with the rest – the ones with prisoners tied up in “stress positions” with panties on their heads, handcuffed into simulated sex scenarios and stacked in naked pyramids, all with Lynndie England flashing a thumbs-up in front. The prison holds a confusing number of military and government groups and private organizations – it would’ve taken a whole other movie to get it all straight. The guards certainly weren’t clear about it themselves. A side-effect of Morris’s technique here is that he’s made the opposite of The Road to Guantanamo, which was told from the prisoners’ point of view. This movie is an analysis of the photographs, of the circumstances behind them, but only from the guards’ points of view. The nameless prisoners, degraded and objectified in those photographs, remain anonymously dehumanized in the film, enigmatic vessels of suspicion (they are, after all, “enemy combatants”) and sympathy (for the torture/s.o.p. depicted).

1. A deep-voiced white kid Rafael is the only peacenik in his New Mexico high school, spurred on by a hippie teacher. His parents will hear nothing of it (“There was a time for national debate. It’s over”) so he leaves home.

2. Fernanda’s kids are abducted and killed on the first day of school by local racists. The cops are unhelpful jerks, and the kids aren’t found for a month. Fernanda herself is held for two months under suspicion of murder, disappears when released, goes wandering, is found by a woman with a house full of finches.

3. Ex-Marine Carlos returns from war, finds his job gone, is full of uncontrollable lusty rage.

So, a indie film over two hours long, shot on 16mm, full of 1990’s politics but released soon after September 2001. This was destined to be ignored, but accidentally destined to be extremely relevant to the decade that followed.

Freeze frames, long refreshingly unscripted-feeling dialogue scenes, and of course some scenes of trees and the whispering wind. Plus extended concert segments by Naseer Shemma, an Iraqi musician who performs his celebrated composition dedicated to civilians killed when American planes bombed a shelter.

Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope:

Mad Songs is a political film that encompasses multiple stories, but does so following a film historical road less travelled – beginning with DW Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat and leading most recently to Fast Food Nation. The stories never intersect; instead they examine the problems of a time and place (the suburban US during the first Gulf War) almost geologically, by taking samples from discrete layers of American life.

Part of what makes Mad Songs so poignant, and at the same time incredibly strange, is the hope and earnestness with which it concludes. No film I’m aware of has given so much space to peace activists, sitting in meetings and testifying about the transformative power of nonviolent resistance. To a generation of critics and cinephiles reared on post-noir cynicism, Gianvito’s treatises surely sounded like transmissions from another planet.


When I first began to conceive the project that became The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, around 1993 I believe, it grew purely out of seething rage over the events of the 1991 Gulf War, the mainstream suppression of those events, and concern over the continuing support of lethal sanctions and military “containment” of Iraq. By the time I saw the film to completion the entire situation had only grown graver and more infuriating.

Blood: Disliked from the start, showing a neglected round-bellied child walking stupidly around some animals, hitting them, unsupervised, an animal herself. Movie explores the problem of AIDS in China, how it is widespread and misunderstood. Uses the ol’ “look how sad everything is, feel sorry for us” effect… more a mission than a movie.

Sari: the excised fourth Iraq Fragment (and seems shorter than the others), also about AIDS. The kid in this one is human, with thoughts and feelings, expressed in voiceover like the rest of the Fragments, as his mother runs the bureaucratic gauntlet trying to get him treatment.

I think in both situations the kids got the disease through blood transfusions… sad that’s still happening anywhere in this decade.

Maybe it’s because the Tara never properly focused the projector, but we didn’t like this so much. Thought it had its moments, and was an interesting idea for a documentary, done in a unique way, but with the unfocused images and the erratic editing (“kinetic” if you ask the imdb reviewers), I felt like I did at Mondovino… wanted to look away from the screen or close my eyes, and just rent it later.

The director says: “Iraq in Fragments illuminates post-war Iraq in three acts, building a picture of a country pulled in different directions by religion and ethnicity. Filmed in verité style with no scripted narration, the film explores the lives of ordinary Iraqis to illustrate and give background to larger trends in Iraqi society.”

First section follows a Sunni kid in Bagdhad with narration by the kid himself, getting beaten and tossed around and trying to hold down a job. Second section has more of a wandering focus, with a religious Shiite group planning strategies in a smaller city. Third section is in a rural area, with Kurdish farmers and brick-makers, again focused on a boy with his narration.

Katy didn’t like the way parts one and three had a personal focus and part two wasn’t about one person. I did like the variety, would’ve maybe preferred a third approach for the third section instead of bookending with two young kids talking about their dim futures.

Would have to see again, either on video or in focus.