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Stay Human

Michael Franti's film spotlights war's human toll

By Michael Shapiro

Frustrated by the lack of media coverage about the human side of the war in Iraq, musician, poet and peace activist Michael Franti decided to go there and see it for himself. "I really wanted to see with my own eyes what was happening over there, not [hear about it] from generals or politicians," Franti says by phone from his San Francisco home. "They never mention the human cost."

Though he didn't know if he could visit Iraq, Franti found that "all you need to get into the country is a plane ticket." Of course, when entering a war zone, you also need to take safety precautions. Franti and his traveling companions--two human-rights lawyers, his manager, a drum tech, a retired U.S. Army captain, and a beauty salon owner "just for good measure"--found a driver who shepherded them to a hotel outside the Green Zone. But that didn't mean they weren't frightened.

"I'd stay up every night and think, 'What's gonna happen to me?'" Franti, 38, says. "It was scary every night, every minute, but we found great drivers to guide us safely from place to place."

Traveling with a guitar and video camera, Franti, who leads the band Spearhead, says he had no intention of making a film. But after sharing so many heartrending and uplifting moments with Iraqis, and later with Israelis and Palestinians, Franti felt compelled to sift through 200-plus hours of footage and create a documentary.

The result is I Know I'm Not Alone, a personal view of war's effect on people. Franti appears live to screen the doc on Oct. 14 and says it's about what locals endure every day: life without electricity; the fear that any moment the car next to you might explode. While traveling and after he returned home, Franti wrote more than 20 songs inspired by the trip. Some are featured in the film, which Franti calls "a musical journey."

When he arrived in Iraq, Franti, who vociferously opposed the invasion, says his antiwar songs "seemed unimportant. I saw that what matters is the way people relate to each other. So I wrote songs about how we either get closer to one another or put barriers between one another. Mostly it's about the resilience and beauty I found every place I went."

He also found that carrying a guitar led the people he met to open their homes and their lives. There are lots of black people in the Middle East, he says, but most of them are wearing uniforms. "I wasn't there to tell them where to go or arrest them. I was just playing music."

After spending a week in Iraq, Franti traveled to Israel, where he met with Palestinians in the occupied territories who spoke of such hardships as being detained for hours at security checkpoints. Yet feeling that he didn't get the Israeli side of the story, Franti returned to the Middle East last February to meet with Israeli families who'd lost a loved one in what seems a never-ending conflict. He even jammed with some Israeli soldiers, who sang along as Franti played Bob Marley songs.

Asked if he could distill his impressions into a single lesson, Franti says, "Occupation never works. It hasn't worked for three generations in Israel, and it's not working in Iraq. Sure, they're glad to be rid of Saddam--he was like the Wicked Witch--but now there are car bombs and shootings."

So why can't Americans see that the occupation isn't working?

Because, Franti says, most people have no idea what's going on over there. Television news doesn't show the effect of the war on innocent people or soldiers, he says. "If people knew what was going on, they wouldn't support the occupation. We have to have conversations, we have to have agreements."


'I Know I'm Not Alone' screens on Friday, Oct. 14, at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Franti will perform an acoustic set after the film. 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. 7:30pm. $15; SSU students, free. 707.664.2382.

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From the October 12-18, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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