Those We Left Behind
After the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens stepped up to assist our military in the reconstruction effort. In the intervening years, an American who worked with these teams for years discovered that many of his former colleagues were being targeted by radical extremists because of their work; in fear for their lives (and those of their families), these Iraqis have become refugees in search of asylum. In The List, TFF alum Beth Murphy (Beyond Belief, TFF 2007) chronicles Kirk Johnson's ongoing attempts to force our country to do the right thing.
Tribeca: Tell us about The List. How do you describe the documentary in your own words?
Beth Murphy: This is a film about the clarity and conviction of one man in the face America’s war on terrorism, a war that often provides few moments of clarity or moral fortitude. To me, Kirk Johnson represents the best of America—who we want to be or imagine ourselves to be when we engage in the world. The truth is, he is an anomaly. He is a voice in the wilderness, and even as Americans are loathe to hear more about the Iraq war, he continues to remind us that Iraqis lives are at stake because they signed on to help America rebuild their country.
Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? It clearly seems like a labor of love and passion. Did you have a connection to any of the subjects—were they your “way in”?
Beth Murphy: I serve on the board of the International Institute of New England, an organization that helps settle refugees in the Boston area. Issues facing refugees are ones I care deeply about, and it’s the number one reason I volunteer for this organization.
In early 2007, we were hearing that our organization would soon be aiding a flood of refugees from Iraq—especially those who worked directly for the U.S. government while we were at war in their country. Some were threatened; some were kidnapped; others were executed and offered as examples of what would happen to anyone who allied with the Americans.
One State Department official suggested that 20,000 Iraqi refugees could be admitted into the U.S. over the course of that year, but by the end of July, a grand total of 133 had been let in. While terrified Iraqis waited, went into hiding, or fled their country to become refugees in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, the paperwork that could bring them safely within our borders was held up at every turn and routinely rejected. It was a massive bureaucratic failure—one that seemed to suggest that no one really cared if these people lived or died. In Boston, the refugees we’d been waiting for never came.
That raised a red flag, and I just started making phone calls. I wanted answers. It was a call with someone at the State Department that led me to Kirk and his work.
Tribeca: Please take us through the timeline. How long have you been working on this project?
Beth Murphy: I met Kirk in the summer of 2007 during a quiet lunch in Boston. I was 9 months pregnant.
He was quiet, unassuming, impressive. What struck me most is that he put his entire life on hold in order to focus on this issue—something he never anticipated doing. He was totally focused on something bigger than himself, something I really admire. His conviction that the United States faced a moral imperative to help the Iraqis we had placed in harm’s way was the antithesis of the paper-pushing and unconcern coming from Washington.
Wherever he was going with his remarkable one-man fight, I wanted to document it. Less than a month after our first meeting, I was on my way to Chicago to film Yaghdan, the first man from Kirk’s list, as he arrived in the United States.
This first filming was just four days after giving birth to my first (and only) daughter Isabelle; that’s how important I believed this story was to tell. I anticipated nearly three years to complete the film, but because of new developments in the story, the production timeline ultimately stretched more than four years.
Tribeca: When you interviewed the subjects in the Middle East, was it safe for them, or were there any repercussions you—or they—were worried about?
Beth Murphy: The security of the Iraqis we interviewed was always our number one priority. All of the people we interviewed were in danger because of an affiliation with America. You can imagine the inherent challenges that this situation created. The majority of the interviews we filmed overseas (in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Egypt) were done with one major caveat: the interview could only be used in the film if the interview subject had safely been resettled in the United States.
Tribeca: The film presents some pretty damning evidence against our treatment of our Iraqi allies. What do you hope audiences take away from The List?
Beth Murphy: I hope this adds to the tremendous body of work by other filmmakers about the impact and consequences of the Iraq War. I would like for this to generate thoughtful reflection and discussion around individual responsibility in times of war, what it means to uphold American values, what our actions say about our values, and how our history is linked to moral choices.
Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?
Beth Murphy: The very first shoot for this film was in Chicago with Kirk Johnson and his parents at his childhood home. Four days earlier, I was celebrating the birth of my daughter, Isabelle. The last shoot for this film was also in Chicago with Kirk Johnson and his parents at his childhood home. Moments after landing in Chicago for this final filming, I received a call from my mother: my father had been in a car accident that afternoon; he was killed. The bookending of our filming with such personal moments of life and loss, gave me pause to think even more about the fragility of the human condition, and the outright injustice of betraying our Iraqi friends and allies. When people are hurting, what they need is both compassion and action.
Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers? Is there one particular thing you learned on The List that was different from your other work?
Beth Murphy: The most important thing I learned is to just stay true to the story you’re trying to tell. It may not happen in the timeframe you envisioned, it may mean putting other things on hold longer than you’d like. But the goal is clear: make the best film that can be made and everything else will follow. There are often outside pressures—even from other members of the production team—that can be a threat to the artistic and story-telling process. Again, the mission is to make the best possible film—don’t ever lose sight of that.
Tribeca: What are you most looking forward to at the Tribeca Film Festival?
Beth Murphy: I’m looking so forward to having the film’s World Premiere in an environment that truly feels like family. My first feature film premiered at Tribeca in 2007, and this feels a lot like coming home.
Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?
Beth Murphy: Werner Herzog. Crazy? Not crazy? I want to see for myself. Either way, brilliant for sure. And I love the advice he gave to a complaining filmmaker: “It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist… and it’s not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams… stop whining and get back to work.” Exactly.
Tribeca: What’s your favorite New York movie?
Beth Murphy: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?
Beth Murphy: Tall Man, Short Lady. This was an observation made by a giggling southern Sudanese man as my husband and I were walking through the bush. The phrase has always meant so much more to me than height. It represents discovering the unknown, coming face-to-face with the unexpected, and finding possibility in the seemingly impossible. And it always makes me smile.
Tribeca: And finally, what makes The List a Tribeca must-see?
Beth Murphy: This is the human face of the Iraq War, an example of the aftermath of war. And I believe the aftermath of war is something that is all too often forgotten. America has moved on from Iraq, but for Iraqis who worked with our government and military, there is no moving on from the life-threatening reality they and their families face. And in this big picture is a very personal and emotional story of a young American who is single-handedly trying to redeem a nation.