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This Is Your Street Mid-Bombing - A Hollywood-budget public service announcement aims at discouraging suicide attacks in Iraq and elsewhere.

Baghdad in Cali: A staged blast in downtown Los Angeles is filmed for an anti-bombing spot
Eddie Garcia
Baghdad in Cali: A staged blast in downtown Los Angeles is filmed for an anti-bombing spot

June 20, 2006 - Remember the egg, the frying pan and the message? "This is your brain," the ominous narrator told us before cracking an egg over the sizzling skillet. "This is your brain on drugs." Public service announcements have changed a lot since that foreboding culinary lesson. They now include exploding cars, flying Matrix-style stuntmen and exceedingly dire messages like "Don't Suicide Bomb." A new, American-made PSA aimed at discouraging these deadly attacks is currently in production. The ad is slated to air as a 60-second spot on Iraqi television this summer.

It's a tall order considering that post-occupation Iraq is now rife with militant groups and plagued by increasing sectarian violence. In March alone there were an estimated 175 suicide bombings. There's also the question of just who will be able to see the PSA. The cost of owning a TV is often prohibitive for the average Iraqi, and those who are affluent enough to get Iraq's state-sponsored programs are not always thrilled by what they're seeing. Though there is the new, post-Saddam Iraqi Media Network (IMN), its $6-million monthly budget is provided by the United States and many local viewers feel that its positive reports on the U.S.-led war are simply propaganda so they turn to satellite TV instead. Those who are lucky enough to obtain a satellite dish can receive programs from all over the world as well as independent, Arab-run news channels like Al-Jazeera. And will the type of young man drawn to extremist groups be likely to sit around watching TV?

Surreal scene: A green screen provides the backdrop to flying extras
David Frucht
Surreal scene: A green screen provides the backdrop to flying extras

Regardless, the Los Angeles-based production company 900 Frames and Lebanon's EFXFilms think they can get through to whomever is watching with a slick, Hollywood-style PSA and plenty of pyrotechnics. They recently transformed an industrial block in downtown LA into a busy Baghdad square, filled with fruit stands, shoe repair shops and rug dealers. At least 60 extras dressed in hijabs, kaffiyehs and polyester-wool blend slacks were herded onto the set to simulate an average shopping day. But there was hardly any Arabic spoken on this Baghdad street. Spanish, Punjabi and even Italian could be heard as extras gathered around the Kraft services table to munch on chips and guacamole. When asked if he is Iraqi, Bidkar Ramos, an extra on the set, laughs. "No, I'm Chinese and Mexican," he says. "Like most of these people, I'm just a look-alike."

Onlookers were later asked to stand back as the pyrotechnic crew blew up a poor old Yugo coupe and stunt men and women, padded under their Arab garb, were thrust into the air with ropes and pulleys to simulate the impact of a bomb exploding. "We all watch it on the evening news," says 900 Frames partner Drew Plotkin, "but we're using a 120-camera set up that was used in films like 'The Matrix.' It gives a frozen-in-time feeling. Instead of seeing a flash and ambulances racing to the scene, we're showing the street right before the attack, during and right after. That will communicate the horror, the carnage, the human toll these attacks take on innocent civilians."

There was an air of paranoia on the set last month even though the press were initially invited down to cover the 3-day shoot. Reporters and cameramen were banished to the perimeters of the scene and were kept in check by several crew members. They were also asked not to speak to the actors, extras or any of the Lebanese production team. Despite all the secrecy surrounding the project, NEWSWEEK has learned that the high-tech PSA will cost over $1 million to make and may even air in other Middle Eastern countries. This pricey and unorthodox attempt to subdue the violence is backed by a group of mystery donors. "I call them an independent, non-governmental group of scholars, non political people," says Plotkin. "Some may live in Iraq, some may live abroad. For a variety of different reasons-from safety concerns to wanting the focus to remain on the issue itself, they decided to remain anonymous."

Regardless of the good intentions behind the PSA, it's a potentially dangerous venture (especially for the Lebanese film company involved) and may be regarded as propaganda in a region already plagued by anti-American sentiment. It's a chance Plotkin seems willing to take. "If we can even change one mind and save some lives then we've succeeded."

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