Local Filmmaker Tackles Iraqi Refugee Crisis in 'The List'
By: Chris Kazarian & Elise Hugus, July 19, 2012
COURTESY PRINCIPLE PICTURES - Kirk Johnson (left) started out just trying to help his Iraqi friend, Yaghdan (right) come to the United States. But he soon realized there were thousands of others in need.
Two years after he started working for the US Agency for International Development in Fallujah, Iraq, Kirk Johnson started compiling a list of Iraqis seeking refugee status abroad.
It all started in December 2006, when he received word from a former Iraqi colleague who had found a severed dog's head on the front steps of his home. Attached was a note that said he would be next.
Sunday, July 29 at 7 PMRedfield Auditorium 57 Water Street, Woods Hole
Beth Murphy will answer questions after the screening.
That motivated Johnson to try to help bring his friend to safety in the United States. By June 20, 2007, World Refugee Day, Johnson founded The List Project To Resettle Iraqi Allies.
Less than a month later he would become the focus of North Falmouth resident Beth Murphy's documentary, aptly titled The List, which details Johnson's work in getting the US government to fulfill its promise to give refugee status to Iraqis that worked with the US military.
A modern-day Oskar Schindler
Murphy, owner of Principle Pictures in Boston, first made waves with her 2007 documentary Beyond Belief, detailing the work of two American women who lost their husbands on September 11, 2001, to help Afghani widows.
Shortly after meeting Johnson—through her work with the International Institute of New England, non-profit that has been assisting Iraqi refugees since 2007—Murphy realized she had found a modern-day Oskar Schindler.
"As part of [the International Institute’s] agreement, we were going to be able to handle a large number of cases in Iraq," she said. "And then, shockingly, no one came. It raised a red flag and put a question mark in the back of my mind."
The first footage she shot, just days after she welcomed her daughter Isabelle into her family, was of Johnson welcoming a close friend from Baghdad.
"He really wanted to help one person, this friend, get out of danger and then realized it wasn't just one person or 100 people. It was thousands of Iraqis facing danger," said Murphy, who focused on Johnson’s work with three Iraqis in her film.
The refugees’ stories "are heart-wrenching,” Murphy said. “We show someone, an Iraqi translator, who has his leg blown off by an insurgent, because he was trying to drag one of the soldiers to safety. He waited more than two years to get out of Iraq."
An endless list
While Johnson has made progress in his efforts, bringing more than 1,000 refugees into America—to everywhere from Boston to Chicago to San Diego—Murphy said his list continues to grow.
"It is now over 3,000 names," she said.
Murphy hopes the film sheds light on what the United States' actions—and, in some cases, inaction—have meant to Iraq.
"The film is about who we are as Americans and the way we operate in the world," she said.
Murphy’s travels to Iraq have left her somewhat saddened in that regard. She had never felt worse about being an American than when she was in Iraq, she said.
But even in that dismal reality she found a glimmer of optimism in the work Johnson is doing.
"With The List I try to tell it through his eyes,” she said. "For me, the reason Kirk's story is so important is he represents overseas who we are and what we want to be, especially in times of war."
Completed in late 2011, The List premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in New York City this spring and also screened at the Chicago Human Rights Festival, HotDocs in Toronto and the Nantucket Film Festival. Murphy is also working on an curriculum accompaniment to the film for high school and college students to address the moral obligations and human consequences of war.
At each screening, the film has sparked an important conversation among festival audiences.
“Iraq is off the radar but people are ready to start assessing what happened and what are the consequences of the Iraq War," Murphy said.
"There is a very, very sad and unnecessary human cost. When people see the film, they start to understand the Iraqis. They wanted to change their country and they thought the US was the hope for doing that… of course those hopes were not realized.”
The number one question viewers have after watching the documentary is how they can help The List Project move forward, Murphy said. Unless people have deep pockets or connections in Washington, she suggests setting up a personal connection with one of the thousands of Iraqis who have made it into the US through The List Project’s online community NetRoots.
Murphy is currently working on two documentaries: What Tomorrow Brings, about an all-girls school in a socially conservative village in Afghanistan; the other, Boomtown USA, about a modern-day gold rush in oil and gas-rich North Dakota.