This month marks three years since the US-led invasion of Iraq, and as the bloody occupation continues with no clear end in sight, more and more documentary filmmakers are coming forth with projects that offer their take on the conflict. At the SXSW Film Festival, which concluded ten days ago in Austin, Texas, film programmers were nearly deluged with entries on the war. “If there was one subject most commonly covered by the documentaries we received this year, it was the war in Iraq,” says Matt Dentler, SXSW Film Festival producer. “I think the reason is simple – it’s a compelling, polarizing, and disturbing subject.”
This year’s SXSW festival featured several films on the Iraq War, with an eye towards documentaries that offered a fresh take on the topic. “For instance,” says Dentler, “Laura Poitras‘ ‘My Country, My Country‘ is told from the Iraqi perspective about the new elections. Basil Gelpke‘s ‘OilCrash‘ is about the oil crisis, and the war is only a fraction of the bigger story. Or, you have Jeffrey Ross‘ ‘Patriot Act,’ which is about American soldiers, but primarily about comedians entertaining them.” In that particular film, Ross and six other comics entertain troops all over Iraq, including some remote sections of the Sunni Triangle, providing a life-changing experience for the performers.”
New York City’s upcoming Tribeca Film Festival (April 25 – May 7) will feature three high profile Iraq War docs, including the anticipated world premiere of Richard Hankin‘s “Home Front,” which follows 21-year-old Jeremy Feldbusch from his 2003 deployment as an eager soldier through his struggle to cope with his subsequent injuries after a piece of shrapnel leaves him blind and bedridden. Also highly anticipated is the world premiere of Deborah Scranton‘s “The War Tapes,” which follows several members of the National Guard who, after being called up for service in Iraq, were given digital video cameras in order to document their experience.
Also, the film, from producer Robert May (“The Fog of War“) is poised to set itself apart from other war docs with its unique and compelling approach. “As a producer, that’s what intrigued me,” May told indieWIRE in a recent conversation. “It was a concept that I hadn’t heard of before. I was certainly aware, like everyone else in America, about embedded journalists and the stories they’re bringing home, but what would it be like to see a first hand account of what it’s like to be in battle, and from the soldiers point of view?”
“The War Tapes” not only follows the Guardsman into Iraq, but their families back home, and the aftermath when they attempt to reintegrate into every day life. “This film tells the story from when these guys arrive,” says May, “and it takes you through an entire year… the arc is how they’ve changed. When you first meet these guys, they’re joking around a lot, then you can see the nervousness of them getting ready to leave, and once they’re there, you see what happens, you see how they evolve, and how they’ll never be the same again – and who would be?”
It’s that kind of original approach that will be required for the best of the Iraq War documentaries to rise to the top. “The challenge for the doc filmmakers is to make sure they are telling this story with fresh eyes and ears,” says Dentler. “Taking a digital camera into Iraq is not the novelty it once was. I remember when ‘Gunner Palace‘ had all this anticipation because it was revealing a story no one had yet told through documentary filmmaking. You could taste the buzz around its Toronto premiere. When we did the North American Premiere of ‘Occupation: Dreamland‘ at SXSW, only six months later, many doubted it because ‘Gunner Palace’ had already come and gone… and, now, we have about half a dozen similar Iraq docs each year.”
The Tribeca Film Festival will also feature the North American premiere of Andrew Berends‘ “The Blood of My Brother: A Story of Death in Iraq,” a film which shows the war in Iraq from the point of view of an Iraqi family grieving the loss of their son Ra’ad, an Iraqi portrait photographer who was killed by an American patrol while standing guard at a mosque. Hungry for revenge, Ra’ad’s brother Ibrahim dreams of joining the Shia uprising against the American occupation, but as the last man left standing, he must provide for his family. As his friends leave town to fight the Americans, Ibrahim tried his best to keep up his brother’s business while taking care of his mother and two sisters.
Durham, North Carolina’s upcoming Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (April 6-9) also features a high profile war doc, James Longley‘s “Iraq in Fragments” (which won the best documentary prize at the recent Cleveland International Film Festival). Shot in verite style, the film highlights post-war Iraq in three acts, exploring the lives of ordinary Iraqis, ultimately creating a portrait of a country pulled in different directions by cultural conflict. Down the road, look for Marc Singer‘s “Warriors,” which he is currently filming at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Singer, who directed the remarkable documentary “Dark Days” was given unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Marine Corps, and is stationed with 1st Battalion/ 8th Marines in an effort to capture the essence of what it truly means to be a soldier.
Some of these Iraq war docs will connect with audiences, and some won’t, but in many cases it can be difficult to predict. “I don’t think they can be positioned one way or the other politically,” says May. “Our film I believe is very organic, it isn’t slanted from either direction. I think that cause oriented films can be problematic because they will address the needs of one particular cause or group of people, and then alienate the others. One of the things that I really like about our project is I think it’s very well-balanced. I think as an audience member, do we want to be forced into a position? Do we want to be knocked over the head with a particular position?”