Review by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 8/3/06
Buffalo audiences that viewed the previews of the locally made documentary, Forgotten City, saw first hand how amateur video footage can be edited into a first class film. Though lacking any formal training in filmmaking, the Forgotten City videographers did have access to people and communities often unapproachable by the mainstream media. The end result was a compelling glimpse of Buffalo street life – which was an eye-opener for a segregated city where most folks will never experience the poison of impoverished neighborhoods.
This week, we’re witnessing the national release of another documentary film, The War Tapes, which applies the same formula to the Iraq War. Billed as “The first war movie filmed by soldiers themselves,” The War Tapes is made from amateur video footage shot by three New Hampshire National Guard soldiers during a one-year deployment to Iraq. Their images were made into a compelling feature length film by producer Robert May (The Fog of War), editor Steve James (co-editor of Hoop Dreams) and directed by first-time filmmaker Deborah Scranton, a New Hampshire Single mom.
The resulting film is powerful and compelling – so compelling that after a few minutes we cease to notice what would otherwise be an annoying Blair Witch style shaky camera. The difference is that The War Tapes cameras are capturing real life, and real life is a shaky thing – especially in Iraq.
Like in The Forgotten City, the filmmakers blaze ahead vacuuming up data unencumbered by the ethical constraints that may trouble a trained ethnographic fieldworker. The result is alarmingly candid – and at times self-incriminating, as soldiers expose their racist views toward Iraqis, who they term Hajis, in a pejorative twist on the word denoting a devout Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
War is ugly. It’s not about liberation or democracy. It’s about killing. Forget that, and a soldier could wind up dead. This is the message of The War Tapes. It gives us insight into war, at least from the perspective of an occupying soldier in a foreign land. There are moments where the insanity is unbearable, such as when under equipped soldiers ask why they are risking their lives to guard Halliburton trucks full of “cheesecake.” No matter where they sit on the political spectrum, a sickening disgust for war profiteers such as Halliburton seems to be universal in Iraq. The rant against Halliburton is just one place where these citizen-soldier-journalists pepper the film with a running commentary as they examine their own roles in Iraq, their own racism, and perhaps, the erosion of, or struggle to maintain, their own humanity.
When the filmmakers return from war, the film goes on. It turns out you can never return from war. War follows you. It haunts you. And in some cases, it destroys you. This is where the filmmakers deserve real kudos – for opening up their own lives, not just as soldiers doing a job, but also as husbands, fathers, boyfriends and sons. Ultimately the filmmakers expose their souls to the camera, giving us noncombatants a rare insight into what war really means.
For most viewers, the ultimate shock will be at who is sitting next to them in the theater as this film has been embraced by both anti-war activists and veterans groups supporting the war. Is it an anti-war film? I’d argue yes. Any film that accurately depicts war, by its very nature, is an anti-war film. Hence anti-war activists want Americans to see what war is – to understand the policies they support through their taxes and silent acquiescence to government policies. War supporters want folks to know what kind of sacrifice our soldiers are making – so that they can empathize with active duty military and veterans and support them in their struggles to both readjust to civilian life, or continue fighting in Iraq.
Ultimately The War Tapes is about truth and understanding. During this period in history when truth and honesty is so rare in the American media, The War Tapes provides something that Americans from all political camps can appreciate.
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