The Story Behind the Roots of War Documentary

Documentary: The Roots of War The Road to Peace

Phil Smith, Niki Nicastro McCuistion, and Dennis McCuistion

For all of us, our world changed on 9/11. Even if we were not personally affected, the economy, technology, Homeland Security, getting through an airport with the ease we once had… has had an impact. Little did I know the change it would bring to my life with a phone call from one of the funders of the McCuistion TV program that I have produced for the last 20 years. It was late autumn 2003 and 9/11 was still a raw issue. The funder asked me if I was interested in producing a documentary on terrorism, what led to 9/11 and subsequent events. I hesitated for two seconds — “yes, of course.”

I submitted a grant proposal, it was accepted, and the adventure began. I’d never produced a doc and this work would involve going to the Middle East, interviewing officials, scholars, man/woman on the street, soldiers, and fringe groups. In retrospect my naïveté amazes me. Somehow it all worked, from visas to appointments. Iran declined our visit — took our visa money and said no thank you when I too-truthfully said we wanted to explore democracy and the role of women and terrorism. We were going to Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Israel. People responded to my requests, they said yes, interviews were set up and off we went. A budding filmmaker was born. The team:

Phil Smith — videographer; my former husband, Dennis McCuistion — narrator and co-interviewer; and yours truly — producer, director and co-interviewer… all of us eager to show up Michael Moore.

First stop: Jordan for an overnight, then onto Iraq. Our unmarked white plane should have been a clue. Landing in a zig zag pattern surrounded by helicopters was an omen to the suicide bombing we encountered two blocks from our hotel — the first night there. We learned not everyone wanted us. Yet some citizens talked to us and invited us for tea and thanked us. Children would surround us — especially me. We saw the hospitals and schools the US had built. And we encountered hostility as well as acceptance.

In each country we visited, more of the same. The ugly American was hated for his/her politics — not as individuals — and we ran into some touchy incidents. In Jordan, we filmed the funeral of a Hamas leader and an event with Queen Rania protesting violence against women. In a Palestinian camp in Lebanon, with tears running down my face as I interviewed, a woman screamed at me — that she would gladly sacrifice her son as a suicide bomber to help the cause. Yet in his interview with us the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, Ayatollah Fadllalah, lamented the use of violence.

In Israel and Palestine, we interviewed leaders, soldiers, and everyday citizens affected by the ”fence/wall”; one side, intent on keeping suicide bombers out, the other whose whole lives were impacted as villages were cut down the middle by a 15 foot high wall. And on Palm Sunday, as church bells pealed in Jerusalem, we stood on a hill with a CBS crew and IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) and the talent for CBS asked if he could go first since all he needed was a sound bite from IDF regarding the security fence. I thought “a sound bite” on this most divisive issue that is one of the protests bin Laden cites as his reasoning? My life changed once again. I determined these issues would be my life work and it would never be about “sound bites.”

Home again, and months of editing and more interviews and getting b-roll and… Scheduled for airing in January of 2006, we first aired Roots at the Angelika to community leaders. Well-received, it was a shock to get a protest from the Freedom and Justice Foundation saying the work was biased and inaccurate. They were emphatic, and KERA pulled it. And I had to go back to the drawing board, re-vet, and shorten. Our funding was gone, yet terrorism is not static. Phil Smith and I funded the remake out of our own pockets. Needing to keep it up to date, I made numerous trips to interview again here and in the Middle East, and Roots of War finally aired on KERA in June of 2009.

If I knew then what I know now — little would change. Perhaps more preparation, getting experts involved in dialogue before setting out, showing it to key experts as we went along. I have learned painfully about issues such as terrorism and the schism in Middle East politics and jihaddism no-one agrees. There are moderate Muslims who want peace and democracy and are terrorized by their own people so they do not speak up. And I’ve learned I can make a film that counts, that educates and I can hold my ground. Because in the end, as producers it is our work. The Roots of War… the Road to Peace is an ongoing saga. Stay tuned ’cause there is more to come.

Reprinted with Permission of R. Jolley Dallas Producers Association (c) Niki McCuistion
Original Article: The Roots of War… The Road to Peace

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