Review of Michael Franti’s “I Know I’m Not Alone”April 7, 2011
L.A. Weekly called it “…achingly sincere…”, New Nationalist said it contained “…glimpses of stunning truth…a breath of fresh air.” and Hybrid Magazine commented it was “…a hopeful throw-down that preaches the message that all people are one people…”. It won “Best International Documentary” at the Harlem International Film Festival and Amnesty International deemed it the “Audience Award Winner”. The film is “I Know I’m Not Alone”, and it is a personal quest from musician Michael Franti to document the untold human cost of the billion dollar wars ravaging our world. He brings us along on this musical journey, opening eyes and ears to the interconnectedness of all beings and the underlying truth that a wish for peace runs through us all.
The film was produced in 2005, a time when Iraqi citizens had been occupied by American forces for just one year. The film’s voyage begins as Michael and crew circle to the ground in their small hopper-jet in Baghdad, Iraq. Upon arrival, the group is driven around Baghdad by two Iraqi cab drivers who also serve as their translators. The two Iraqis warn that if the crew want to take the risk of venturing beyond CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) approved areas, they are in grave danger of being attacked, or even kidnapped by locals. There is no security outside of the areas patrolled by American and Iraqi forces, and therefore, these American travelers as well as Iraqi citizens are at great risk. However, Michael is intent on meeting and speaking with locals, so the risk is weighed and they venture into uncharted territory.
What happens in the rest of this portion of the film is almost magical. Using his guitar, and newly written song, composed of one arabic word, “Habibi” (or “dear friend”), Michael breaks down the imposing proverbial walls locals have put up. He is invited into homes, to speak, sing and laugh with people. The war for moments at a time melts away, and we are transported into the very lives of those whose meanings are intertwined with war, violence and death, yet manage to carry on living a human existence within an inhumane environment. The gunfire becomes a part of daily life and the picture is magnified so greatly that it is no longer the war that is spoken of in neighborhoods, but all the minutia of living in a war zone; the lack of electricity, the lack of medicine and the violent roving gangs outside the CPA protected areas. People’s lives are halted and livelihoods demolished by their lack of ability to work due to power outages throughout the day. They are rushed to hospitals and diagnosed, but cannot be treated due to the lack of medicine within hospitals. Parents hurry their playing children inside as the sun sets, praying their home goes untouched through the night. These are the human costs of war that touch and mold the daily lives of civilians in a war zone. These costs are not calculated when the ever increasing dollar amount ticks away through our taxes. Through all this, however, we discover life goes on.
Still in Baghdad, a group of men bash their drum sets and attack their guitars, as ‘The Black Scorpions’ play heavy metal music in a basement next to an underground tattoo parlor. Another group of individuals are airing this music on the first free radio station of Iraq. Amidst the buzzing of generators women are blogging and cutting hair and selling fruit. People are struggling to live a life set against the backdrop of gunshots, explosions and foreign military presence. One woman blogger tells Michael Franti and his crew “…your boys and daughters are going to be killed in Iraq, and our boys and daughters are going to be killed in Iraq…and what are we fighting for?”. Here in America, we hear of the boys and girls we went to school with coming home from Iraq in body bags. We mourn them on the high school football field and we curse war and the toll it has on our friends and neighbors. Across the ocean, other mothers, and other neighbors, and other friends, are mourning their boys and girls in ravaged streets and broken homes. Franti quotes General Tommy Franks, U.S. Central Command stating “We don’t do body counts”. Those who do “do body counts” such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies have revealed incredible, sobering and often terrifying findings. From the beginning of the “engagement” in Iraq, through July of 2006 when this film premiered, according to MIT there have been an estimated 654,965 “excess” deaths (that is, deaths that are not part of “normal” life in the area). These are the deaths of children playing in the streets, of mothers and fathers buying fruit, selling fruit, playing instruments, playing games. These are the deaths of Iraqis searching their streets for hope and spreading a wish for peace.
However, the death toll of war is not only about how many innocent people die, but in what ways they die. According to MIT’s report, from January 2002 (pre-invasion by American forces) to June 2006 (post-invasion phase III), non-violent death went from 98% of total deaths, to 39%. This is to say, the percentage of individuals who died by violent means (gunshots, carbombs, airstrikes, other explosions etc.) increased by a factor of 30! Often times, death by violence is construed much differently in one’s after life than a non-violent or natural death. The way family and friends mourn the death is drastically altered with violence. Those left to survive the victim are often unable to accept and move past the death of their loved one when there has not been and cannot be any means of vindication, or justice brought upon the killers. Many individuals believe the souls of individuals killed violently are unable to leave this earth, and eternally suffer their brutal killing unless certain measures are taken by those who precede them, measures which in times of war are often impossible to take. Violence does not only effect our pocket books, and death is not the only consequence of war. Iraq may never recover from the devastation it has endured, but as Michael Franti shows, lives move on. People have an incredible ability to remain resilient and forge on through daily battles. They strive to do normal things; they drive taxies, play ball, go to school, and they strive to do the abnormal as well; they make headway for future generations in their land and secure peace if it is at all possible, through music, radio, and the “blogosphere”. Life is moving on in Iraq, but it is not nearly the life we in America have any sense of, nor are we aware of the impacts our country is having on this way of life.
After leaving Baghdad, Franti and his team travel to Israel and occupied Palestine. They travel throughout Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Gaza Strip and the West Bank exposing the incredible similarities that exist between these warring groups. At the same time, he brings to light through the camera, many of the realities on the ground and the inequalities and human rights violations which are occurring in this hotly debated area. An Israeli musician Franti encounters gets to the roots of their existence eloquently and realistically by saying “…Arab and Jewish, we are so close…eating the same food, speaking the same language, we believe in the same God, we have the same father, we have the same mom. The problem is only about the political state.” This could no better exemplify the truth of the matter. There are innocent people, both Israelis and Palestinians, who want only to live their lives, reside in their homes, go to work without the fear of being harassed or killed, yet their existence is torn apart daily.
Michael speaks with “Bereaved Parents”, a group of Palestinian and Jewish parents together grieving the loss of their children to the fighting, together hoping for an end to the bloodshed. These people have bridged their differences, we see this is possible, but there are incredible boundaries one must overcome to unite on the side of peace. One such boundary is the illegal partition built around and inside Palestinian territories, cutting citizens off from what little land they legally now own. The partition is a three story wall in places, and in others is three rows of barbed wire fencing. There are countless places where this obstacle separates Palestinians from their work, from their olive groves and from their families. They must convince an Israeli soldier to allow them to tend to their daily work, and if the soldier arbitrarily decides to deny them access, they may loose their job, their olives may go bad, their family members may die without company of families. These, along with many other obstacles, physical, emotional and mental, bar Israelis and Palestinians from seeing the common bonds that tie them and bridging the many gaps that must be bridged in order to secure a peaceful future.
Yet, through Michael Franti’s film, we become privy to the successes that are happening between individuals and the extreme perseverance of those carrying on with their everyday lives in these territories amidst violence, hatred and fear. Individuals are rising above these obstacles and in some cases speak with each other on the same emotional level. An Israeli guard at a gate of the barrier fence actually listens as a Palestinian speaks, not blaming, not yelling, not accusing, just speaking. The two connect on an emotional level, they are no longer the wolf and the fox, speaking different languages, attacking and turning deaf ears to the other. They suddenly are both humans, speaking to and listening to each other’s needs for basic human rights and dignity. As Michael and his crew stand beside the two, we see a need for international presence, for someone to facilitate these kinds of interactions. We also see however, the possibility of people from two vastly different groups to come together, to bridge their differences, to speak to and from their hearts for a common wish for their sons and daughters to finally live in a land of peace.
Through his music and incredible ability to connect with people of all creeds and colors, Michael Franti opens a door for his fans and interested people world wide to be exposed to a side of war rarely touched upon in our everyday lives. The cost of war is often enumerated in tax dollars and body counts, but often the more devastating costs cannot be quantified and must only be lived and told. Franti has done an incredible job showing the minute details of every day life that are vastly affected by acts of war and violence, not initially apparent to the foreign eye. I strongly recommend taking this remarkable journey with Michael Franti as he exposes his audience to life in war through personal conversations, anecdotes and earth-shattering music!
Credit and where to find photographs used:
Sistine Chapel “Hands” reproduction on wall: www.palestinemonitor.org
Israeli Barrier Map: www.middleeastprogress.org
Man speaking to soldier: www.acus.org
Pictures of Michael Franti in various locations: www.iknowimnotalone.com
Additional information about the film and ways to get involved available at www.iknowimnotalone.com.
-Kellie Brandt-MPT Intern