Q&A: Beth Murphy, Director of The List
The Story of a True Hero
09.10.2012 - Beth Murphy's compelling
The List follows Kirk Johnson, an American foreign-aid
worker who compiles a list of thousands of Iraqis being persecuted
at home and fights to get them refuge. Before the premiere of the
film at ADFF, Murphy answered our questions.
You have directed a number of
socially conscious documentaries before making The
List. Where does The List stand in your
The List is representative of the kind of work I always
want to do: Films that bring attention to individuals and groups
who might not otherwise be heard, and films that address complex
moral questions, examining them on both a global and a personal
level. Stories of people like Kirk Johnson and the Iraqi workers in
The List inspire me; in this case to chase after the
footage and the interviews for nearly four years, all across the
globe, from the US and Iraq to Syria, Jordan and Egypt.
How did you first meet Kirk? And how was the film idea
I volunteer on the board of the International Institute of New
England, an organization that helps settle refugees in the Boston
area. In early 2007, our organization was preparing for a flood of
refugees from Iraq, especially those who worked directly for the
U.S. government while we were at war in their country. Some of
these people had been threatened, some kidnapped, others executed
as a warning to anyone who might consider allying with the
Even though our agency was prepared for a big influx of
refugees, they didn't arrive. This raised a red flag for me. If
these people were endangered through their service to the United
States, why weren't they turning up for resettlement? That
year, one State Department official suggested that 20,000 Iraqi
refugees could be admitted into the U.S. over the course of 2007,
but by the end of July, only 133 had been let in. I started making
phone calls to try to figure out what was holding up the process.
It was a call with someone at the State Department that led
me to Kirk Johnson and his work.
After meeting Kirk and getting some sense of his commitment to
the people who had worked side by side with him in Iraq, I knew I
wanted to film his story as it unfolded. Less than a month after
our first meeting, I was on my way to Chicago to film Yaghdan, the
first man from Kirk's list, as he arrived in the United States.
You followed Kirk's story over a long period of time.
Can you tell us more about the production process including the
frustrations you faced?
As an observer, it has been deeply disturbing to me to witness
the massive bureaucratic failure of my government in its
relationship with the Iraqi workers it directly employed. It's a
failure that has often seemed to suggest that no one really cares
if these people live or die.
There have been moments of tremendous accomplishment for
Kirk-the arrival of Yaghdan was a huge milestone. The much later
arrival of Ana and her family was also a joy and a relief. However,
even now when Kirk and his team have successfully brought almost
1300 people from The List safely into the US, every
positive outcome is tempered by the knowledge that there are still
thousands who are waiting, still in danger, their lives
marginalized and on hold. I think it haunts him. I know it haunts
What were the challenges you faced when filming in the
Middle East? How did you build the trust among the
The security of the Iraqis we interviewed was always our first
priority. All the people we interviewed were already in danger
because of an affiliation with America. This created constant
challenges as we set up communication, meeting places, etc. There
were two big factors that made it possible to capture the footage
we have: First, Kirk Johnson is deeply respected by this community
of refugees. They were aware of the work he had already done on
their behalf and in the aid of others in the same situation. Kirk's
fluency in Arabic also helped to put the Iraqis at ease. Secondly,
the vast majority of the interviews we filmed in Iraq, Syria,
Jordan and Egypt were done with one major caveat: the interview
could only be used in the film if the subject had safely been
resettled in the United States. For this reason, a great deal of
our footage remains unusable even today.
What's your personal view on American politics regarding
the Middle East?
I'd like to focus on one particular area of US/Middle East
politics: The Special Immigrant Visa. This piece of
legislation was a perfect example of both sides of the political
aisle coming together to agree on an urgent and important policy.
Prominent senators worked side by side to craft a system that would
give priority to Iraqi citizens who worked for America and who were
in danger because of that affiliation. 25000 visas were set aside
just for this population, and the process was to be expedited to
help save the lives of these allies.
Congress passed it. The President signed it into law. There was
a tremendous time of hope among the waiting refugees who would be
eligible. Five years later, more than 19000 of these visas have not
been used. Organizations like Kirk Johnson's List Project to
Resettle Iraqi Allies and The Center for American Progress have
advocated and worked and pushed and pulled, but the visas remain
stuck in a mass of bureaucratic red tape that no one seems to be
able to pass.
In my opinion, this apathy and disregard for a very specific
piece of legislations designed to help a desperate population is a
crime. All of the United States' ally nations in Iraq
airlifted their Iraqi workers to safety years ago. Unless someone
at the top of our government stands up and demands action and
accountability on this issue, it will never be resolved.
What are the latest news and updates from Kirk and The
In recent months, Kirk has started a new list; not of cases he'd
like the State Department to prioritise, but of what the
US-affiliated workers are going through while they wait for someone
in our government to process their Visa requests. This list is a
sobering one: death threats, assassination attempts,
kidnappings and casualties. It is Kirk's hope that this approach
might inspire a sense of urgency in the handling of the Iraqis'
cases. Kirk is also writing a book that chronicles the story of
The List. It will be published next year.
How can we citizens from all over the world help Kirk
and contribute to The List project?
The List Project still receives pleas for help on a
daily basis from US-affiliated Iraqis. To support Kirk's Johnson's
work, please visit the website for The List Project to Resettle
Iraqi Allies (thelistproject.org).
If you want to be involved with the impact campaign for The
List documentary, please visit Principle Pictures (principlepictures.com),
or contact me directly at (email@example.com). Our
goals for this campaign in partnership with the film include
fostering public understanding and dialogue about issues of
cultural tolerance and moral responsibility in war; creating
opportunities for high school and college students to study the
human consequences of war; engaging the legislative community to
re-authorise the Special Immigrant Visa before it expires, and
empowering the legal community to be better able to address the
needs of refugee populations.
Can you talk about how you started making documentaries
and what was the main reason behind choosing this path? Which
documentary filmmakers and documentaries influenced you the
I was a journalist and a news anchor before I started making
documentary films, and every day that I delivered the news in
60-second increments, it drove me crazy to think about how much of
each story had to be left behind to fit into the small time
segment. How can we ever really understand what's going on in
the world when we only see and hear such a tiny part of
When I founded Principle Pictures, I did it so I could tell more
of the stories that matter to me. The subjects my company
chooses are ones that are close to my heart-stories that give a
voice to people who are seldom heard; that raise social awareness;
that emphasize the importance of education and compassion. The news
industry has changed dramatically over the past decade-to the point
of sometimes being just a rapidly moving ticker at the bottom of
the screen. I think documentaries help to fill the void that is
being left by the racing pace of the news media.