Taken from The Australian (April 13, 2006)
A voice for the people
A year into the war, singer Michael Franti decided he needed to see Iraq first-hand. The result is a moving documentary
by Iain Shedden
MICHAEL Franti is sitting in his dressing-room, backstage at the West Coast Blues and Roots Festival in Fremantle, looking at his young son fast asleep on the sofa opposite. It was in a related situation two years ago that the seeds of the San Francisco-based musician's latest project were planted.
"I was at my yoga class and at the end of the class I was meditating," he says. "It was the night before we [the US] were going to bomb Baghdad. I thought to myself: 'If someone was coming to bomb San Francisco, what would I tell my son before I put him into bed at night? He doesn't know anything about war. Would I say there's going to be fireworks and don't be scared? Would I have to then tell him the reality of what was going to happen?' I couldn't think of anything to say to him. So I just lay there and I started to cry."
This emotional moment stayed with Franti, who has spent most of his career doing his best to promote world peace through his songs and through the media.
"The next day I turned on the news, waiting to hear the voice of these families who had been in this bombing," he says. "After all, we were coming to liberate them. But I didn't hear it. So after a year had passed of not hearing anything of the people of Iraq, I decided that I wanted to go there and just be a listener."
The product of that decision is Franti's debut as a film director. I Know I'm Not Alone is a feature-length documentary in which the singer, armed with a guitar and a camera, travels across the Middle East, talking to people in the streets of Israel, including the Palestinian territories, and Iraq about their lives in a war zone and trying to forge, through music, a common bond between them and himself.
I Know I'm Not Alone has had a mixed reception in the US, where it won best film at the San Francisco Film Festival late last year. It's a moving but highly politicised work, one that has been compared with Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in the US, not least as a piece of leftist propaganda. Franti has been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration.
"We were lied to about going to Iraq to get Saddam because he was involved in 9/11 and had weapons of mass destruction," he says. "Neither of those things were true and now tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people have died. I have an empathy for the people who are on the ground there who are coming to the same realisation as the rest of the world, that it's a bunch of BS."
The comparisons to Moore, at least in a political context, are partly justified, but Franti's film is perhaps closer to Australian film-maker George Gittoes's 2004 documentary Soundtrack to War, which explored the musical tastes of the occupying armed forces in Baghdad as a way of showing the human side of the conflict.
Franti admits to a deep admiration for Gittoes. "We have talked many times," he says. "He's an incredible dude. To me he's like a freedom fighter, somebody who for decades has gone to the most difficult places in the world to hear the story, to be a listener."
Like Gittoes, he wanted to show the human side - to demonstrate that there is life and hope behind and beyond war - and, in engaging with families in Baghdad, the West Bank in Israel and elsewhere, he achieves that aim.
There are some heart-warming moments as Franti wanders the streets with his guitar, to the bemusement of onlookers. He strikes up friendships with US soldiers as well. "You come in and you're playing a six-string guitar and for most people in Iraq that's not their first frame of reference for music," he says. "Sometimes people would be like, 'What is this?' It was as if it was classical music to them or something." In the end, however, he broke some ground. "Everywhere I went doors would just open," he says.
Franti has been opening, and sometimes forcing, doors since the beginning of his career in the late 1980s. As an angry young socialist he fronted San Francisco's Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, whose energetic hip-hop garnered large audiences across the world. Since then, he has become equally active as the frontman and chief songwriter for Spearhead, a hip-hop-soul outfit that enjoys a particularly strong following in Australia. For that reason - and just because he loves the place - Franti comes here regularly.
His performance in Fremantle typifies his way with local audiences. He is tall and lithe, with a stage presence that gets the biggest crowd of the festival bouncing up and down as one. There's plenty of respect from fellow performers as well: Jackson Browne, Damian Marley and Donavon Frankenreiter join him at various points in the performance.
His greatest talent is as a performer, but he is proud of his film. Its making was very much a learning process, both in terms of technique and in his understanding of war. He came out of the experience, he says, as a different person.
"I think the way that I changed the most was that I went away from the whole experience having respect for everyone that was involved," he says.
"The war doesn't leave anyone out. It doesn't matter if you are a US soldier or an Iraqi, or a civilian, or an Israeli soldier."
There's a striking moment in the film in which Franti is flying into Baghdad and is told by the pilot that the slow, gradual trajectory of their landing is to reduce the risk from ground-to-air missiles. It illustrates perfectly the danger in which Franti was placing himself, but he says that was all part of the experience.
"The only time I wasn't scared was when I had a guitar in my hands," he says.
Back home, the terror came when attempting to turn the many hours of footage into a concise, presentable and credible movie. "It was way harder than I ever imagined," he says. He credits his partner, Carla Swanson, who edited the film, for making it the powerful commentary that it became.
"I had no idea what I was doing until I got involved with this, but I had a lot of experience just playing with film and music on my Mac," he says. "I'd just take little bits of film and edit them to my songs and make videos and that's where the idea started, that's what got me inspired. Music is so powerful on its own and film is so powerful on its own, but when you put the two of them together it's amazing how big it blossoms. When Carla showed me the first minute of the film I started to cry. What she did was so powerful and so beautiful, so I wanted as many people in the world as possible to see it."
Michael Franti presents I Know I'm Not Alone at the University of Sydney's Manning Bar tonight, Byron Bay Arts Factory on Saturday and Darwin Deckchair Cinema on April 20. It is also screening at Melbourne's Cinema Nova.