A buzz-generating documentary opening today in the Bay Area presents a new
way to approach the national conversation about the Iraq war, a debate that
often gets derailed over whether the real story is being told there.
The filmmaker's solution: Give video cameras to the soldiers on the ground
and let them roll tape for a year, nearly uncensored.
The result is "The War Tapes," a 94-minute film culled from 1,100 hours of
footage, which is revolutionary on several levels. Not only is the film created
in the same raw, user-generated manner that is powering the explosion of blogs
and video-sharing sites on the Internet, it is bypassing the traditional media
gatekeepers who some soldiers -- and, for different reasons, anti-war
activists -- think are not telling the war's true stories.
"I think if we can get people in to see the film, I think it's going to
change the way people see the war," said Staff Sgt. Zack Bazzi, a soldier in
the film, in a telephone interview from Washington. "There's a huge gap between
the people who are fighting this war and the people who are at home. I think
this will be eye-opening for people who have been watching the war at home on
TV. It's not the same.
"Part of the reason is the media. A reporter can be with us, use all the
lingo, try to be our buddy," Bazzi continued. "But still, we look at them and
say, 'You're the media.' "
Staff Sgt. Zack Bazzi in a scene from "The War Tapes." Photo courtesy of SenArt Films (Photo/Lacy Films)
A leading pioneer of citizens' journalism says the model of the "The War
Tapes" -- amateur filmmakers being edited via the Internet by professional
editors -- could change the face of storytelling. Not only do viewers see the
bloodied faces of dead insurgent Iraqis in "The War Tapes," but they see the
frustration, fear and confusion on the faces of American soldiers. Neither
image is a staple of the network evening news.
"This is not a piece of traditional journalism, but it is a brilliant
example of journalism with great power," said Dan Gillmor, director of the
nonprofit Center for Citizen Media, affiliated with the UC Berkeley Graduate
School of Journalism. "Its power is in its authenticity. You know that the guys
on the ground are living with what they're (filming)."
The film is a rarity on the business side, too, in this era of
preach-to-the-choir politics. It is being marketed to -- and gaining plugs
from -- liberal and military organizations alike. A recent advance screening
in San Francisco was promoted by the military issues news site Military.com and
the liberal Mother Jones Radio.
"This isn't a Michael Moore film, and it isn't a recruiting film," says
Ward Carroll, editor of Military.com and a 20-year Navy veteran who saw the
film. "How can you quarrel with it? It shows the good and the bad. It's
The film shows how partisan politics gets fuzzy in foxholes: Soldiers who
voted Republican complain about guarding trucks for Halliburton Co., and a
Democratic-voting soldier who reads the Nation re-enlists. There is little
violence, far less than the average summer multiplex film.
The idea for the movie hatched in February 2004 when a public affairs
officer for the New Hampshire National Guard asked filmmaker Deborah Scranton
if she wanted to be embedded with U.S. troops. Scranton, a former freelance
producer for MTV, CBS Sports and Fox, had gained the military's trust with her
first effort, "Stories from Silence, Witness to War," a documentary about World
War II soldiers from her hometown of Goshen, N.H. She pitched the notion of
giving cameras to the soldiers.
"It would immediately increase your field of vision," Scranton said. "To
have all those cameras going, you'd climb inside what the soldiers are
experiencing and feel it all around you."
The Guard agreed but said the soldiers would have to volunteer to be
filmmakers. The company commander would review the film before mailing it
stateside. Only one scene was censored, according to the filmmakers and
soldiers, and its contents were discussed in the film.
Two weeks later, Scranton traveled to Fort Dix, N.J., to explain her
project to the 180 infantry soldiers in the company. They peppered her with
questions: Are you for the war? Are you against the war? What are your
politics? How are you going to take and twist our words? Why should we believe
"I told them that we'd make the film together," said Scranton, who
declined to say whether she supports the war. "My views are not what this film
Five soldiers volunteered to film for a year. "The War Tapes" focuses on
three of the five, enabling Scranton and her crew to get more in-depth material
on the soldiers and their families. She followed them from the moment they left
the United States to their often-awkward re-entries into civilian life.
Their diverse backgrounds give them different takes on the war.
By his own count, Bazzi is one of five soldiers in the unit who didn't
vote for President Bush. Born in Lebanon, he escaped the civil war there with
his parents when he was 8 years old. His mother waits, tearful, at home.
Spec. Mike Moriarty is a 34-year-old married guy who has two young kids
and served a four-year hitch in the Army in the late 1980s. After the Sept. 11
attacks, he took a bus from New Hampshire to New York to feel the silt and dust
from the blasts with his own hands. He re-enlisted, asking to be assigned to an
Sgt. Stephen Pink, who has a girlfriend, is a college graduate who joined
the Army to pay for school. He is the least political of the three, yet he was
involved in the only piece of censored footage. Pink's commander disapproved of
him filming a dog eating the remains of a dead Iraqi insurgent. But the film
addresses the issue head-on by having Pink describe the incident in a segment
"Having the camera became more than an assignment; it became their
confessor," said film editor Steve James, who edited the multiple-award-winning
1995 documentary "Hoop Dreams."
"Americans have this comfort level with a camera. They've grown up around
them. And these guys gave us material that we wouldn't have known to ask for,"
Even those who praise the sincerity of the film, like San Francisco
anti-war activist Chris Thomas, remain skeptical that they are getting the
whole story. Scranton never went to Iraq, fearful that her presence would be
"Still, you can't get around the fact this was made by an embedded
filmmaker," Thomas said. "The military was able to review this. They're not
going to put something out there that they're not pleased with."
Gillmor, the citizen journalism expert, disagreed. "I'd say the filmmaker
tried pretty hard to be invisible. There's a lot of directors who, when you see
their movies, you see their hand. This isn't one."
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited