So many times on the Internet, I’ve watched a video clip of combat in Iraq that looks like it was shot by a soldier. I hear some talking, the sound of shooting, screams and yelps in the background. But just as often I don’t have the context of who was filming, why they are filming and what’s going on inside their head. Where are they? What’s the situation? Did they succeed or fail?
It’s interesting video, a slice of life, but whose life? Thanks to director Deborah Scranton (pictured here) and her innovative film, The War Tapes, now I have some major clues to connect the dots — at least for the three soldiers who shoot their experience of the war in Iraq.
Scranton decided that rather than embed herself as a filmmaker in a New Hampshire National Guard unit in 2004, she would send along videocameras to some of the soldiers and let them tell their own personal stories of what it’s like to go to war. She made a promise to them — as a fellow New Hampshirite — that they would have the freedom to tell their own stories without her interference.
But rather than simply turn over the entire production to the citizen soldiers who serve in the National Guard, Scranton created a hybrid film — with much of it shot by soldiers in the field, and another portion shot by Scranton and her crew back home with the soldiers’ family and after combat. So what they created is more of a collective effort in storytelling, with Scranton choosing the three soldiers who are featured in the film, and the soldiers themselves interviewing each other and other members of their troop.
The result is an eminently watchable — and at times horrifying — film of war told in an eyewitness style that’s often missing from mainstream dispatches and politically charged films. The soldiers are patriotic and want to serve their country, and you get a sense of their motivation for going to war. But you also see the pain for their families back home, and the difficulty they have fitting back in and resocializing after combat duty.
The movie already has won the Best Documentary award at the Tribeca Film Festival, and is slowly opening to more and more theaters around the country. Its raw emotional impact and soldier viewpoint has won it critical praise, as “The War Tapes” is rated 97% positive by critics on Rotten Tomatoes (a site that aggregates movie criticism).
So I spoke to Scranton recently to learn more about the collaborative project, and how it paralleled so many other bottom-up efforts with citizen journalism I had been writing about lately here at MediaShift. The following is an edited transcript of our phone conversation.
Tell me more about the idea for the film, how it came about.
Deborah Scranton: Based on my work on a previous film, Stories from Silence: Witness to War, about World War II veterans, I was offered to embed as a filmmaker. People get this wrong and say I could have embedded as a journalist. The offer was to embed as a filmmaker with the New Hampshire National Guard.
That night, after I went to sleep, I literally woke myself up — you know how you do that when you have an idea? — I wondered what if I was to virtually embed and give the soldiers the cameras. A lot of my prior work in television was with sports. I used to be on the U.S. ski team, I covered events like the Olympics, the Tour de France, big sports. It was familiar to me to be on a headset with 20 cameras filming. So in effect I took that multiple camera platform and had the idea of what if we applied that in this instance.
The next day I called back Major Heilshorn, the public affairs officer for the New Hampshire National Guard, and said, “Greg, I have an idea…” To their credit, he talked it over with Major General Blair, who was the adjunct general for the state of New Hampshire, and they said OK. ‘We could see how this would be a different way to tell a truer story, so we support you.’
Did you have fears about going over there yourself?
Scranton: No not at all. I totally would have gone, but I thought this was a better way to do it. You know, I still could have gone later, even after giving them the cameras at various points. But I realized that if I or one of my production crew went it would have diminished what the soldiers were doing and it would have been about us and our interpretive framework, when what I was really interested in was their interpretive framework.
I gave them a promise. When Major H gave me my pick of units, I picked the unit of Charlie Company. I picked them for two reasons. One is that they’re infantry, and I’m sure you know, it’s the job of the infantry to close the last 200 yards of battle, to engage the enemy. And two, they were going to be at LSA Anaconda [a large base in the Sunni Triangle] which I knew had Internet access. Because what I was interested in was this new idea of creating this permeable relationship, where we would work together to tell the story.
So the caveat to the access was that I had to get the soldiers to volunteer. I got up in front of the whole unit, 180 guys, and told them my vision and I made them a promise. I said that we would tell the story through their eyes, no matter what happened. And of those soldiers, 10 stepped forward. Of those 10, five filmed the whole year — the three that you meet in the film, plus Duncan Domey and Brandon Wilkins. They filmed their entire deployment, which is unprecedented. As time went on, 21 soldiers filmed for the project.
How did you decide on the three soldiers who would be featured?
Scranton: It was kind of obvious. Whenever you’re looking for a story arc, you’re looking for the biggest arc. You know you’ll get the biggest arc with the guys you’ve followed all along. I spent six days with them before they deployed doing really really intense interviews. I did interviews with them when they were home on leave, and I was with them for 10 months after they came home. We were looking for depth, and those three out of the five were the ones who would go as deep, and also their families.
For instance, [Seargent] Steve Pink’s journal entries are just so unbelievably poignant, I think, and so fabulous. I knew about Steve’s journal but it wasn’t until he came home that he was willing to read it for the camera. It’s all about the depth of relationship and intimacy.
Like [Seargent] Zack Bazzi telling the story about defying orders, which is at the close of the film. He and I had talked about that in an IM [instant messaging] conversation, a lot of what we talked about is what friends would talk about. How are you doing? What is your day like? Zack had told me that story and I had remembered it. When he was home, I told him, ‘You know, Zack, that story haunts me. Could I interview you about it?’ That’s another example where the trust, intimacy and friendship really led us to another level, as to what they allow us in. They were so courageous.
Tell me the process of making the film when they were in Iraq.
Scranton: We didn’t start editing until they came home. Tapes on average took two weeks to get from Iraq to me. So what they would do is turn the tapes into their company commander, who would then send them to Major H in New Hampshire, and they were hand-delivered to my door. We also had this incredible logging system which the soldiers and I did by platoon, by soldier, and then tape number. So we always knew what was in the pipeline.
So I knew when the car bombing scene was coming, because Steve Pink emailed me photos from it. Once he got back inside the wire [the base], he told me he had had an unbelievable day and attached the photos with a half-burned body outside the car, and I could tell he was pretty shaken up. And I could see an IM window pop up with Mike Moriarty being inside the wire, so I pinged him to ask if he could do the interviews with Steve Pink, and that’s the interview you see in the film.
What was the reaction of other soldiers to the filming going on in the unit? Did it change the dynamic of the platoon in any way?
Scranton: [The soldiers] said that basically over time it was just another piece of equipment. They were ingenious about mounting [cameras]. The two most popular mounts were on the dashboard of the Humvee and on the gun turret. And we had two POV cameras that they could clip onto their Kevlar, plus the thermal imaging camera… You know they’ve got different equipment in the truck that they’ve got to flip the switches on and get it operational. It was the same as pressing the record button [on the camera].
The cameras were the top of the line consumer-grade cameras. The Sony 105 and 109, the 350 — as the models got better I kept getting them the top of the line. I think the 350 is up to a chip and a third. They’re just the ones that fit in the palm of your hand. It’s not the same as having a huge camera with a huge crew.
I know what you mean about the corrupting presence of a camera, but I imagine that months into the process you just forget about it. You can see in the film, some guys say, ‘Hey there’s a camera,’ and you see some ribbing. It had the least amount of impact that you could have. And there were no other bodies there, there was no crew, so that limits how people would react.
Because you were an outsider, not a soldier, how did you gain the trust of the soldiers involved?
Scranton: I promised them we would tell it through their eyes no matter where it took them, no matter what. These guys are my neighbors, I’m from a small blue collar town, this is my volunteer fireman, this is my son’s math teacher. [Specialist] Mike Moriarty always would kid me and say, ‘I know where you live,’ because he lives like a half hour from me. That was part of them trusting me. They said all along that if I was some Hollywood or New York person they never would have trusted me. Plus I brought my first film down to them, and Mike Moriarty requisitioned a VCR and they barricaded themselves in to watch it. They said that was the best calling card.
They grilled me. They said, ‘What the f—- do you know about the National Guard?’ And I spent 13 minutes tracing the history to the early 1600s and they said, ‘OK, you do know.’ It’s about respect, and why should they trust me with their story. Where I grew up the only thing you have is your name and your word and I value that highly.
It’s impressive that you could pull off a feature documentary largely with consumer-grade digital video cameras, so there’s that technological angle. But also I wonder if it helps that soldiers are largely of a younger generation who are used to filming and photographing their lives.
Scranton: I would point out that this was a National Guard unit, and the oldest member in it was 57, so this isn’t active duty 19-year-olds. But I agree with you, that we are all more gadget friendly.
To me what’s interesting is that it was a hybrid production. I had the 200 hours that I filmed with a big camera, and the sound guy, and that was filmed traditionally. Doing it in this combination of them filming their Iraq portion, I think that’s very exciting. For me it was telling the story of the individual out vs. my preconception in. I was there to work with them to listen to what they were saying to make this bond of empathy with them. I wasn’t saying, ‘Let’s go get KBR [the Halliburton subsidiary], do a story on them.’ I never said that, and could you imagine if I had gone and had been there when they did [the] KBR [sequence in the film], they would say, ‘Oh that liberal whatever.’ And I’m not a liberal.
It’s really important that [the soldiers] maintain the authenticity and the authorship of what they chose to share with us. It’s really profound to give them the chance to press record. I’m really passionate about that. I wanted to get inside the experience of war, what does it feel like, smell like, what does it mean? We’re a country at war, not that you would know it in day to day America. I think it’s important as a society that we know what war looks like. There’s 140,000 boots on the ground in our name!
How do you feel about the war?
Scranton: I don’t answer that question because the film is about the soldiers and their views, and it’s not about my views.
You consciously left that out of the film, but you make decisions by what you edit and what you keep out.
Scranton: I think it’s political in the best sense of the word, in that you show soldiers that were actually there and going through their thought processes. You go on the ride with them and you hear them debate. I was at a film festival where someone asked whether I had authorship over it. I wasn’t interested in those terms, I thought this was a better way to tell this story. What do I possibly have to say about war that could be anywhere near as important as those who have actually gone and fought it?
I’ve been writing a lot about soldiers shooting videos and sharing them online on sites such as YouTube. What do you think about this phenomenon of soldiers shooting video and sharing them online?
Scranton: I think it’s great. It’s multiple facets of what an experience is, The more, the better. If it gives you insight into their experience, how can that be bad?
Some of them seem to really glorify violence. You don’t feel they cross the line of decency?
Scranton: Oh please, war is hell. We were just at a film festival and I was doing a Q&A with Zack, one of the soldiers, and I can’t believe a woman stood up and asked, ‘Do you soldiers have to swear so much?’ [laughs] ‘Uh, it’s combat, ma’am.’ That’s how I feel about the videos, I don’t think I have a right to judge. They were there, that was their experience, and that’s how they express themselves. Some of them may be offensive. There’s a lot in our culture that’s offensive. It gives us a window, and I’d rather have a window than worry about offensiveness.
It’s creating meaning, it’s making context, it’s trying to make sense of it, it’s their own journal, in a way. It’s documenting to go back and revisit it, to make sure they remember it. It’s all of those things we all do in our daily lives, it’s just that war is a backdrop. They’re incredibly vivid.
Do you see other possibilities for doing future movies in this ‘citizen filmmaker’ collaborative hybrid style?
Scranton: I’m already working on another hybrid. I think this is a viable way to tell stories from a more authentic point of view, if you’re interested in learning about something through someone else’s eyes. If you’re truly curious about what it is, then this is a great way to explore that in a TV show or movie. I can’t tell you about details yet.
What do you think? Have you watched “The War Tapes” and what did you think? How can traditional movie-making change to embrace decentralized citizen journalism or filmmaking, where amateurs get involved in filming from their point of view? Share your thoughts in the comments below.