As an example of unembedded reportage, The Blood of My Brother is quite remarkable, offering a startlingly intimate glimpse at everyday Iraqi life, circa 2004, under the current U.S. occupation. As a study of the monumental human toll of war, however, Andrew Berends’s documentary is distinctly lacking in both focus and balance. Having lost his photographer brother Ra’ad to American gunfire while guarding an ancient Baghdad mosque, 19-year-old Ibrahim al-Azawi is left to arrange the funeral and carry on his sibling’s photo shop business, all whilestruggling to reconcile his desire for revenge with his duty to support his family.
In the young man’s anguish we see both the unbearable grief wrought by wartime loss, as well as the way in which such misery drives many young men to take up arms—in this case, the lure being militant cleric Sayid Moqtada al-Sadr’s Medhi army. Yet Berends barely plumbs the depths of his subject’s moral confliction, too distracted does he become with charting a Moqtada protest march, an unidentified family’s attempt to deal with a military helicopter skirmish, heart-rending images of wounded children in a hospital, close-ups of corpses and slaughtered animals, and brief snippets of American soldiers (who, in interviews, espouse a kill-or-be-killed combat ethos) rumbling through town squares on tanks or destroying market shops when owners prove unwilling to cooperate with investigations.
The Blood of My Brother clearly intends its various narrative strands to form a comprehensive vision of desperation and desolation, with Ibrahim’s suffering mirrored by those of a crying girl who’s lost her mother to a missile attack and his anger reflected in the anti-American preaching of Moqtada. Unfortunately, an excess of editing-room editorializing often damages the doc’s (critical and sympathetic) depictions of battlefield killers and causalities. More problematic, however, is that by refusing to provide a situational framework for its scenes of unnerving violence, Berends’s film offers viewers no valid means of properly assessing much of the footage at hand, the horrifying skirmishes and subsequent outraged reactions by victims’ friends and families depicted with stark brutality but ultimately little in the way of necessary, clarifying context.