Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hometown Baghdad I: No 'Home Sweet Home' for Iraqis

By Sylver McGriff

Part I
The first of this multi-part report focuses on producer Kate Hillis, and the elements surrounding the production of Hometown Baghdad. Future segments will look more deeply into the characters and content of the acclaimed documentary.

Kate Hillis. Tiny woman. Enormous vision.

“I wanted to do something bigger. But not in the Hollywood sense,” she explains, revealing the modus behind the courage it took for a mainstream producer living securely on a successful career of producing programming for such media giants as ABC, MTV, VH1, HBO, FOX, and CNN to stretch her talented tentacles beyond U.S. borders into a region of the so-called “Axis of Evil” - Iraq - just before, during and after the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Did I mention that she was pregnant at the time? Or that in her ninth month, FBI agents unexpectedly showed up at her home for a visit? “I waddled around stashing my files,” she recalls. “Then buzzed them in.” Such is the life of this daring producer of Hometown Baghdad, a series which documents the dangerous reality of the daily lives of three young Iraqis struggling to survive before, during, and in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

On March 10, Prof. Samiha Matin, a Russell Teaching Fellow and professor of such Rutgers University Journalism and Media Studies courses as Intro to Digital Media and Media Essay, presented “The Writers House Media Group: A Conversation with Kate Hillis” in the University’s Murray Hall. Here, nine Rutgers Journalism students learned first-hand about daily life in U.S.-occupied Iraq.

Hillis herself attended Syracuse University, receiving a degree in Business, after which, she quips, “I worked at the Grammy’s, fetching tuna sandwiches for Gladys Knight & the Pips.” Her Business degree was not wasted, however, as she eventually started her own non-profit production company in which she parlayed the diverse talents of Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill, Mother Theresa, and then-President Clinton (to name just a few) into a non-profit arena.

At the Rutgers Writers House Media Group event, Hillis showed clips of her successful documentary, "Hometown Baghdad." In the opening segment entitled “Brains on Campus,” Adel - a University of Baghdad College of Engineering student, and one of the main characters of the documentary - describes in heavily accented English what Iraqi student life was like during the U.S. invasion.

“Our college were [sic] attacked by a missile, and a couple of students were killed. One of them died right here,” he recounts, pointing to a tiled-over section of concrete ground. “His brain is right underneath there. They tried to wash it away but it just couldn’t get off, so they put that [tile] just to cover it.” Taped to a wall inside the college hang graduation certificates for other students who have been killed. “One of my friends lost a kidney,” Adel says soberly. “And another friend lost a leg.”

Initially funded by Cheryl Leech, the woman who created Barney the purple dinosaur (“She’s been our angel,” Hillis said), and produced by Hillis’ own Chat the Planet production company, "Hometown Baghdad" premiered on March 19, 2007 to acclaim in media across the globe. However, Hillis could not garner a concrete deal for the documentary to air on U.S. channels. Instead, "Hometown Baghdad"’s U.S. acclaim came slowly in a word-of-mouth process for the Webby Awards-winning documentary. In 2008, it won for the categories of Reality, Best Political/News Series, and Public Service & Activism.

Webby Awards are given by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences - a diverse organization with such renowned members as David Bowie, Arianna Huffington, ‘Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening, and writers and editors from publications such as The New York Times, Vibe, and Elle magazine - to honor excellence on the Internet. Soon after this win, the Sundance Channel took notice and on March 19, 2009 aired Hometown Baghdad, for which the documentary received a five-star rating by viewers.

“Now, if I can only get a U.S. channel to air it,” Hillis said.
“Good luck with that,” an audience member chuckled.

Iraq is just one of the countries in Hillis’ “Hometown” documentary series; other countries include Israel and Iran. “We try to make them [our documentaries] like a vitamin, hide it in your sugar pops [cereal] so it’s entertaining and also good for you.”

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