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Over There

Documentarians bring the real war back home

Despite the hundreds of journalists moving among the troops in Iraq, the images most Americans see of the war have remained limited. The extended shock-and-awe footage broadcast live by embedded reporters at the war's dramatic opening two years ago quickly gave way to discretely packaged glimpses sandwiched between election coverage and celebrity gossip. But now two new independent documentaries bring a deeper understanding of the experience of soldiers. Garrett Scott and Ian Olds's grippingly acute Occupation: Dreamland, created from two and a half months of living with soldiers in Falluja, recently premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival and makes its U.S. debut at South by Southwest next week. Gunner Palace, by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, a pop-culture-inflected sojourn with a youthful artillery unit outside of Baghdad, opens in theaters this weekend. Both films were shot between the fall of Baghdad and the rise of violent insurgence in 2004; each provides a street-level snapshot of the beginnings of American occupation, as well as a complicated but humanizing portrait of the contemporary American war fighter.

Scott's previous film, Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story, investigated a 1995 incident of tank theft against the backdrop of the military culture of San Diego. After he and Cul de Sac editor–co-writer Olds decided to make a film about Iraq, gaining access proved relatively simple. "Because of the chaos at the time, and the porosity of the borders, it was easy to get through," Scott says. "You just took a car service from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad, where there was a whole network of journalists staying in various hotels—these hives where everybody's doing all this work, and people recommend translators and drivers. It took about a week to get a gig with the army."

Though the U.S. military's embedding program was a highly monitored affair in the early weeks of the invasion, the situation became far looser once Baghdad was taken. "I don't think they really had the time and resources to vet people and make sure they were going to report the right things or get the right training," Scott recalls. Olds adds, "I think it was even more informal at that moment because of how well it had gone during the invasion period. Especially in an area like Falluja, which was essentially outside the bureaucracy in Baghdad."

The contemporary American war fighter: Gunner Palace
photo: Palm Pictures
The contemporary American war fighter: Gunner Palace

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    Tucker had previously been to Iraq in the summer of 2003 to shoot a short film about armored cars, and returned by September to start a more in-depth piece. "I went out on a couple nights with a few units, where it was just like seeing someone and going, 'Hey, can I roll with you guys?' " Then a friend tipped him off to a unit stationed in a bombed-out palace outside the city. "It was great footage, a great backdrop, they've got a swimming pool—I just went to the First Brigade and said, 'I've heard about these guys, what do you think of me going up there?' "

    Both crews encountered similar scenarios of confusion, displacement, and unpredictable dangers: perfunctorily translated exchanges with local Iraqis, nighttime raids on private homes in search of weapons and insurgents, urban patrols that could find themselves under fire from unseen assailants at any time. But the resulting films diverge sharply in style. Tucker's soldiers—many of them teenagers—spend screen time letting off steam in between missions: horsing around, freestyling, rocking out on electric guitar, and joshing with Iraqi staffers. Gunner Palace's editing likewise jitters with MTV-esque frenzy. The slightly older infantrymen of Occupation: Dreamland debate politics, dissect their own long-past rationales for enlisting, and grimly face the angry, embittered residents of Falluja's mean streets; the film slogs through time alongside them, in resolute vérité scenes of you-are-there surrealism.

    In both films, the soldiers prove not only comfortable with cameras, but welcoming. "They're very media savvy in a weird way, because they're getting TV all the time, so they know nothing ever gets back that they feel actually represents what happens to them," says Scott. "The army has a policy of sending a constant stream of journalists to each of their units, so they're used to having a certain amount of camera people and writers around."

    The filmmakers were also aware of how previous embeds had packaged the war for viewers back home. Tucker stresses that he never wanted "to end up in these kind of clusterfucks where there's like 10 cameras all fighting for the same shot. A lot of what you see on the news, that's what's happening. When they pool people and whatever, they're kind of all shooting the same thing."

    "When we looked at what we shot," Olds recalls, "we realized that it looked like anything from the news, if you just took one moment at a time. So making the documentary was really this process of creating a context. Because the images we had were essentially the same images, but they played out longer, so you were given the context, and you knew the people involved. And all of a sudden, it seems like something that you've never seen."

    In some ways, then, these independent filmmakers achieved what military planners say the embedding program was originally meant to foster—a post-Vietnam rapprochement between media and military on the man-to-man level. As Lieutenant Colonel Richard Long, then coordinator of embedded journalists for the U.S. Marine Corps, explained to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2003: "You go and you embed with a unit and you experience that unit and those people and those individuals from start to finish. You understand their essence." Ultimately, the documentary format could grapple with deeper issues that standard television fails to capture.

    But if the filmmakers wanted to avoid the pitfalls of mainstream news media, they also equally uninterested in crafting 2004-style docu-screeds. "I was completely opposed to the invasion of Iraq," Scott states bluntly. "But I wasn't interested in bringing what I thought to something that didn't have anything to do with me. I was much more interested in what was actually happening there." Olds says they aimed for "something that we would have wanted to see about Vietnam or Korea or any of those wars. Not topical or activist, but something that would sustain itself as a historical document."

    Similarly, Tucker sought to restore the emotional punch that images of war have lost. "I'm kind of beyond rights and wrongs, at this point. I'm really more like, we're two years into a war, and it's a very painful thing. And that people need to pay attention to what's happening to these soldiers and their families. I think people have seen the war so politically, when they should see it emotionally, because emotions are good for action. Politics are a very dry thing."

    Nevertheless, both films convey political meanings that go well beyond mere partisan arguments. At the end of Occupation: Dreamland, one soldier sums up the see-no-evil attitude of the folks stateside: "People want that steak, but they don't want to know how that cow gets butchered."

    Scott agrees. "I want people to know how the cow gets butchered," he says. "They should simply know what's happening out there, whether they like it or not. If they still are down with what's happening over there, well, more power to them, but they should know what's happening and how these things are conducted."

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