Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

Review: ‘The List’

Screening At IRC Documentary Film Series

Kirk Johnson in the documentary

Credit: Goldcrest Films International

Above: Kirk Johnson in the documentary "The List."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "The List."


The International Rescue Committee provides support to refugees forced to flee from war and disaster. One way they raise funds and help spread the word about humanitarian crises is through their Annual International Documentary Film Series. "The List" screens April 29 at 7:00 pm at Landmark’s La Jolla Village Cinemas.

The IRC’s 5th Annual International Documentary Film Series kicked off last Monday with a screening of "Sweet Dreams," a film about a group of Rwandan women who move past the devastation of the genocide to find a new future for themselves.

The second and last film in the series is Beth Murphy’s "The List," about Kirk Johnson and his efforts to help Iraqi refugees. Johnson has been called a modern day Oskar Schindler for his work to save Iraqis whose lives were put in danger because of their affiliation with the Americans after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But in the documentary "The List," Johnson comes across more like Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." He has the same lanky build, the same aw schucks manner and when he walks up the Capitol steps to speak before a congressional committee, it’s hard not to think of Frank Capra’s idealistic film hero fighting for lost causes. Johnson comes across as a genuinely decent man who sees injustice and fights as hard as he can to make a difference even if the obstacles seem immense and the government he has put his faith in seems indifferent.

"I had been so vocally and profoundly opposed to the invasion," Johnson says in the film, "but I kept reading all these articles about how the government needed people who understood the Middle East and spoke Arabic that I didn’t feel I could ethically justify sitting out the reconstruction. I also felt a compulsion to go because I felt where my country had made an error in invading I could at least try to ameliorate that or work to make at least some part of it better."

After leading reconstruction teams in Iraq, Johnson came home to find that many of his former Iraqi colleagues were being subjected to terrorist reprisals and forced to seek exile. His frustration with the U.S. government’s unresponsiveness to the jeopardy it had put its Iraqi allies in is summed up by Congressman Gary Ackerman at a committee hearing.

"If the world’s only super power cannot protect them against the crisis we have put them in then we’ve made a bigger mistake than I ever thought."

Beth Murphy's documentary shines light on the problem and on Johnson's efforts to change things. In Hollywood-made narrative films, it can be annoying to have an American be the central focus of a story that feels like it should really be more about the plight of a person or group of people who are not American. But in this case it is fitting because Johnson is the perfect touchstone to make us realize that the U.S. is the reason these people are currently in danger, and that it is the U.S. that has the power and should feel an obligation to help them.

Johnson began getting emails from people asking him to help. So he starting compiling a list of names of Iraqis in need of help. He then organized a team of lawyers to get these people out of harm’s way and on their way to the U.S. It’s a compelling story that has not gotten the media attention it deserves.

Murphy weaves a compelling story. She gives us insight into what makes someone like Johnson care enough to do something while so many others choose to do nothing. Johnson is the son of a U.S. congressman and recalls how at the dinner table every night his dad asks the family what each one had done to help their community that day. It is that sense of community and responsibility that influenced Johnson growing up and made him the type of person who had to take action rather than simply be a bystander.

Johnson will be at the screening tonight at 7:00pm for a post-film discussion.

Companion viewing: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Control Room," "Uncovered: The War on Iraq"

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.