Thief of Baghdad

Sean McGrath

What if your job was to constantly travel to Baghdad and look for weapons? Sounds great, huh? What’s not to like about the warm Arabian sun, thousands of “hospitable” Iraqi military brass and a slip of paper from the UN in your sweaty pocket? Scott Ritter was the lucky bastard who got such an honor. Ritter served eight years as an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps (and he has a resume as thick and commendable as the complete works of Tolstoy). Post Desert Storm brought Ritter a new challenge as Chief of the Concealment Investigation Team for UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission). “Weapon inspection, along with the oil embargo (still in effect) were just reasons to unseat Saddam Hussein.” Armed with a team of video journalists and a skyblue baseball hat, Ritter went nose to nose with Iraqi blockades, attempting to search for and root out nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. In Shifting Sands documents Ritter’s plight and the incredible challenges faced during his tenure as United Nations bloodhound.

Though Ritter’s entourage receives the ol’ Iraqi “palm to the lens,” Ritter’s actions nearly precipitated another Desert Storm. The film splices together a myriad of different video stock including interviews with Ritter, Rolf Ekeus (top executive for the commission), and even former Iraqi kahunas. Also jammed into Sands are over-the-shoulder recordings of Ritter’s confrontations, a surveillance tape of undercover missions, United States news reports and Iraqi television footage.

The film comes to a head when Ritter is disallowed to inspect presidential palaces. It becomes a matter of compliance vs. sovereign rights against which Ritter cannot succeed and is eventually forced to resign. While the UN tries to maintain the most indisputatious attitude, the United States takes the matter into their own hands, beginning Operation Desert Fox. In speaking with Ritter, his determination not only in service to the UN but also to the making of the film were clear. “When we faced problems in Iraq we had to make them understand-100 percent compliance was the only thing that was acceptable, 95 percent was not gonna cut it,” Ritter quips.

For someone of my age, everything this film deals with was either too complicated or too boring for me to understand when I was 11. Targeting all audiences, the film begins with an elementary summary of what happened and why during Desert Storm, and pumps information at the audience in a paced and easily absorbable fashion regarding the enfolding drama (Ritter shifts credit onto his superb editing team). Ritter’s film is objective, thus staying true to genuine documentary cinema. He even went so far as to get permission to search Iraqi government archives. “I was demonized by the Iraqi government as a CIA spy. But over seven years, they realized that I was who I was. I was a hard ass, but I never lied. So when it came time to do this movie, I got a lot of assistance from them. This isn’t a pro-Iraq movie. This is a fair balance at the last ten years of what I’ve done.”

In Shifting Sands will show March 2 & 3 at the Bell Auditorium at 3 p.m. & 5 p.m.