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A Rare Glimpse of Islamís Past and Present in Iraq by Filmmaker Kevin Sim


NEW YORK - In the summer of 2006, as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah fought off Israelis in Lebanon and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced down President George Bush at the United Nations, a bus full of Iranian pilgrims left Tehran on a journey to the holy city of Karbala, deep inside a shattered Iraq.

In a documentary that is without precedent on American television, WIDE ANGLE follows this intense journey into the heartlands of Shia Islam, revealing how two ancient crimes Ė the murder of Muhammadís grandson and the disappearance of a six-year-old imam Ė became the founding legends of Shiism and increasingly dominate events and attitudes in the Middle East today.

Pilgrimage to Karbala is a 90-minute WIDE ANGLE special directed by award-winning filmmaker Kevin Sim. As part of the program, series host Daljit Dhaliwal will conduct a post-film interview with a prominent foreign policy figure to discuss Americaís involvement in the region.

Under Saddam Husseinís rule, it was impossible for Iranians to make the pilgrimage to Karbala. Since the dictatorís overthrow, Shia Muslims, who dominate Iran and are the majority in Iraq, can now make their pilgrimage Ė and are doing so in increasing numbers. But the journey is dangerous, to say the least. Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq are carrying out acts of horrific violence against one another, U.S. troops are battling insurgents, IEDs explode on roadsides on a regular basis, and Shia shrines Ė and Shia pilgrims Ė have become targets of Iraqi Sunni attacks. In fact, just as this group of pilgrims sets out from Tehran, reports come in of 14 new murders on the road to Karbala.

In scenes that have never been captured on screen before, this busload of pilgrims joins the steady stream of Iranians flooding into the holy cities in Iraq. They are afraid and their families have urged them not to go. But their faith is stronger than their fears. Indeed, for them, to die on pilgrimage to Karbala is only to risk holy martyrdom and, thus, an entry to paradise.

As the bus rolls through the desert, the documentary hears from members of Iranís hard-line Revolutionary Guards, influential traders from the great bazaars of Tehran, and athletes from a traditional Iranian sports club Ė the House of Strength, whose extreme exercise regime is driven by the stories and ancient poetry of Iran.

Yet despite their religious fervor, these pilgrims are revealed to be ordinary men, women and children. During their five-day odyssey, they tease each other, make time to watch their favorite soap opera, and talk about their fears of the Americans in Iraq.

But as they travel along the road through the barren landscape in the desert heat, it becomes clear that this is more than a trip through geographic space. It is also a journey through time and memory. As the bus passes into Iraq, the former soldiers remember their days fighting in the Iran-Iraq war of the mid-1980s. For some, the guilt of not having died with their comrades is overwhelming.

The pilgrimage is also symbolic of a journey that many Shia see as a continuing struggle for Muslims in the world. Interweaving the stories of these pilgrims with the tales of Muhammadís grandsonís martyrdom and the disappearing imam, Pilgrimage to Karbala powerfully illustrates how these legends influenced the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the political and religious philosophy of President Ahmadinejad, as well as todayís vicious power struggles between Shia and Sunni in Iraq and the growing fissure between Islam and the West.

Filmmaker Kevin Sim directed Sacred Ground about rebuilding the Twin Towers site, which became Frontlineís best-rated program for 18 months and was nominated Documentary of the Year by Londonís The Independent on Sunday. Other films include the Emmy Award- winning Remember My Lai, Hitlerís Search for the Holy Grail, The Shakespeare Mystery, and College Girls, a six-part series chronicling a generation of students at Oxfordís last women-only college.


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