Garrett Scott, a widely respected young filmmaker whose documentaries received awards and broad acclaim, died unexpectedly Thursday, March 2 in his native Coronado, California, near San Diego. He died of drowning, due to a cardiac arrest. Just 37 years old, Scott leaves behind a legacy as a trailblazing documentarian who tackled subjects such as war, power and powerlessness with "a cold eye and a warm heart," as his co-director Ian Olds put it.
Just two days after his death, Scott and Olds were honored with an Independent Spirit Award for their documentary, Occupation: Dreamland, praised as a brilliant and complicated examination of the US intervention in Iraq. The film, noted as a Critic's Pick by the New York Times and lauded by Variety, the Village Voice and others, offered a textured, critical yet compassionate portrait of American soldiers' experiences in Iraq, which Scott filmed firsthand, sometimes at great personal risk. The film was on a short list of potential nominees for an Academy Award.
"By giving these men a forum even before Falluja became a household name and showing what has been conspicously absent from our tv screens - actual footage of the conflict - the [directors] have made something far chewier than the usual bumper-sticker polemics," wrote Time Out New York. The Boston Globe called the film, “A grunt’s eye view of the current situation that needs to be seen, regardless of a viewer’s political persuasion.”
In a recent interview with buzzflash.com, an online film review, Scott explained his mission, saying the war was being defined by "a lot of rhetoric from journalists and media people, or Pentagon people and officers. I wanted to know what life was like for the men and women on the lowest end of the totem pole."
Amidst Iraq's violence and chaos, friends and colleagues noted, Scott kept his lens focused with a steady calm and clarity -- gathering powerful eyewitness material in sometimes treacherous situations while eschewing sensationalized war photography. "He was very brave, but he wasn't an adrenaline junkie," recalled writer and friend Christian Parenti, who covered the war with Scott in 2003. "Garrett was always confronting doubts and overcoming odds. He understood that to do good work you have to go through painful, difficult things."
Scott's debut documentary, Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story (edited and cowritten by Olds), which he produced while living in San Francisco, explored the bizarre episode of a drug-addled San Diego man's tour of suburban destruction in a stolen US Army tank; the film was a quick hit, and screened at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival and other prestigious venues. Scott supported his work by waiting tables and catering.
Friends and family remembered Garrett Scott not only as an exemplary filmmaker, but as a spirited, adventurous and genuine individual. “I just received a call from a couple in Columbia, California who put up Garrett a few weeks ago when they did a screening of Occupation: Dreamland," recalled his girlfriend, Rachael Rakes. "They called to tell me that even though they had only known Garrett for 48 hours, they felt like they already loved him and made a life friend. He was that kind and that real. I will miss him with all of my heart.”
"I don't know if I've ever seen anybody with such a sharp mind but also a warm heart with so much compassion," said Olds. "I was always struck by his incredible integrity." Nancy Roth, a friend who produced his films for GreenHouse Pictures added: "He was perhaps the most gracious and genuine person I have ever had the privilege to know."
Scott's father, Terry, recalled a son with "high intellectual interest and curiosity," who "challenged everything" and constantly defied obstacles. Scott was a standout swimmer and water polo player who also took great interest in music and poetry. "Garrett had reached a place of real maturity in his work. Like so many things in his life, he did it from the ground up, and reinvented his own wheel. He was a great human being, no one ever defeated him. He never gave up." His mother, Lynne, recalled her son's relentless energy and curiosity about the world around him.
At the time of his death, Scott was living in New York with Rakes, and was developing documentary projects about Afghanistan and San Francisco politics in the 1970s. Scott was born in Munich, Germany, in 1968, and received his master's degree in English from the University of Wisconsin.
In addition to a wide community of friends and colleagues, Garrett Scott is survived by his mother Lynne Uhlig Scott, father Terry Scott, stepmother D.B. Scott, his brother Gavin and sister Morgan. Memorial services will be held Saturday March 11, at St. Paul's Methodist Church in Coronado California. Many other events, in the Bay Area, New York and elsewhere, are being planned to commemorate Garrett Scott's work. Contact www.Occupationdreamland.com or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on upcoming screenings and events.
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist, and author of Diet for a Dead Planet: How the Food Industry Is Killing Us (New Press, 2004). He has written for Harper's, Mother Jones, The Nation and The Economist.