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December 2005/January 2006
Wake Up America! Iraq is no Dreamland

The Satya Interview with Garrett Scott and Ian Olds

 

Soldier in the 82nd Airborne and an Iraqi child.
Photo courtesy Occupation: Dreamland
Soldier in the 82nd Airborne.
Photo courtesy Occupation: Dreamland
Roadside bomb near Falluja, Iraq.
Photo courtesy Occupation: Dreamland

In a time of confusion, politics, war and terrorism, Garrett Scott and Ian Olds offer some clarity. For six weeks the two directors were embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division in Falluja, following the lives of eight U.S. army soldiers. We meet the killing machine, the high school drop out, the driven ex-death-metal guitarist, and the unsure shoe salesman who, needing a better alternative in life opted for the army. Residing in what locals call Dreamland, an ex-Baathist retreat, these men are portrayed in their element—politicking, spitting, reading and trying to explain and figure out why they are there. Without taking a particular stance, Olds and Scott produce a film that leaves these answers up to the crowd.

Occupation: Dreamland reveals all opinions of the war, from inside censorship to outright condemnation. Olds and Scott offer a strikingly different documentary next to the heap of left wing anti-war rhetoric. Their film is a must-see for those who know nothing, and especially for those who think they know everything. Maureen C. Wyse had a chance to talk with Occupation: Dreamland directors, Garrett Scott and Ian Olds about documenting the ignorance, disconnect, innocence, confusion, senselessness and loss that war brings.

What inspired you to make Occupation: Dreamland?
Garrett Scott: When the invasion broke out, I felt so completely removed from foreign policy. I think my basic desire was to make this all less distant and abstract because I knew there were real people involved. And since there was all this access to media being given, why couldn’t we do a long-term documentary about a group of these guys and learn who they are? I wanted a more intimate perspective. When do you ever get a chance to put a camera in this very special little world, where eight guys are living together for a very temporary part of their lives, under the most extreme circumstances where they all have to cooperate and look out for each other. What would it be like every day? And then by getting into this world, you can get this sort of periscope view of how the war is being conducted.

Ian Olds: I was thinking about a project like Occupation: Dreamland for some time. All the major news was coming back with these jingoistic portrayals of the war. We knew that they were inaccurate and had no context.

I would never have gone into a war zone five years ago, but the world definitely seems different since the invasion of Iraq. And we could [approach] this as completely independent journalists and have the same access as the major media networks, at least at that time, and that was fantastic.

Occupation: Dreamland shows the senselessness of war and the confusion of the soldiers, alongside confused and frustrated Iraqis. Can you share some examples of the injustices you witnessed?
IO: That’s hard to answer because the whole situation is incredibly bleak and desperate, so there was never one specific moment. Of course, there is the busting into the homes in the middle of the night and all that, but it was [the entire] situation of being there. There was an overwhelming sense of futility—all you could see was injustice and despair. So it was painful on both sides: having the Iraqis subjected to the power of the U.S. military and, at the same time, all these young men [in the U.S. military] who have been caught up in this cycle and participating in this war—a lot of them against their will. Or only part of their will because they are more than willing to do what they’re ordered to do, but they’re completely uncertain about the larger picture—if it’s worth it, if there’s any real meaning behind what they’re doing.

The Fallujan townspeople seemed extremely articulate and well tempered. What were some of the most moving messages you took from them?
IO: We didn’t have any of the translations until three months after we tracked the footage, so on the street we would have moments where local people would be talking to us and we had no idea what they were saying—sort of this background noise, the sounds of the local language, as opposed to the translations of these incredibly articulate and poignant statements. We were very worried that the film was limited to a focus on U.S. soldiers, and if we had no Iraqi perspectives it would be this horrible oversight. So it was amazing, three months later, going back to the translations and seeing see how articulate they were—“You give us jobs and we won’t fire at you.”

Beyond the filming, we had all these experiences the first couple of weeks we were in Baghdad. We just drove around the country and were invited into peoples’ homes and had this whole different way of relating to people. And the soldiers only had interactions with [Iraqis with] their weapons. There were these older guys who very evenly articulated things about providing a basic infrastructure. Just living their day to day lives was the core of their problems, not the radical religious message—it’s not ‘We hate freedom,’ it’s ‘We want jobs and water.’

GS: When we were with the army we didn’t have our own translator, and so we couldn’t address [Fallujan] people in the way that we could soldiers, and we couldn’t form relationships with anybody. [Fallujan] people talked to us directly, speaking in Arabic and being polite, even though they knew we didn’t understand what they were saying. We would catch the dialogue with the lieutenant, who could go back and forth with them through the translator, but those were the only opportunities we had.

I think some people don’t understand why we didn’t speak to more Iraqis. Once you’re [embedded] with the army, you’re just asking people to kill you.

Another observation was the subservience and almost nonplussed attitudes of Iraqis during the night raids; and the seemingly careless searching by the soldiers through their personal possessions, while the Iraqis just stood by. Did you notice this? Why do you think this is?
GS: I think it was a combination of anger, fear, and having to absolutely control themselves. They went inert. They were just like, ‘Wait for it to pass…’ It was amazing—no one yelling or screaming, or showing that kind of emotion. But you could almost see the anger welling up behind their stable state, just holding it back. Imagine how many of those people are going to be getting involved in some way in the insurgency.

IO: That was striking to me as well. When we went to the houses, it was so consistent how restrained the response was. [Yet] you could see the look of hatred on their faces. Under Saddam many people had similar experiences. Now, more excessively, the U.S. has taken over all the old Iraqi army installations and all the old power. We’re the new tyrant. It’s the same structure, the same basis of power occupied by different soldiers that are doing some of the same things as before.

What about the responses of the children?
IO: That’s the scary thing because those kids will never forget. You blow off someone’s door, pull them out onto the street and humiliate them, put a bag over their head, and his son is never going to forget it, regardless of whether the guy was innocent or guilty—that’s the one thing I am certain of. Maybe half of those homes were involved in the insurgency in some way, but at least half of them weren’t. And there you have the mechanics of the insurgency right there. Hundreds of thousands more Iraqis hate Americans than they ever did before.

One of our favorite quotes from the film was from the young soldier who commented, “people want their steak, but they don’t want to know how that cow gets butchered.” Does this comment at all embody your mission in making the film?
IO: Yeah, I often describe it that way. Although I didn’t think in those terms until we made the movie. There was this idea of a very small group of soldiers being very specific, taking a war that was abstract and in some sense, putting it in people’s faces saying, ‘this is what it looks like, what do you think?’ We tried to refrain from editorializing too much. If we put it in front of people and have them confront the reality of what it is, we hope that will move people.

What are some of the primary points you think Americans are unaware of in terms what U.S. soldiers are experiencing, and what Iraqis are experiencing?
GS: I think the suffering and misery that everybody has. It’s sort of hard to imagine here in the U.S. what it’s like to have an entire city or a country where everyone is totally depressed and miserable. Life under occupation is really a distinctive emotional environment, and it really weighs you down after awhile.

I also don’t think people understand the mechanics. What does it mean for a group of 150 men and women to be in charge of a sector of town of 300,000 people? We don’t understand how it works or what they do and nobody can guess whether it is effective or not. And then you get these abstract questions like, can you win the war or not? Or, should we be there or not? And these ideas really have nothing to do with the people on the ground. I think people don’t even get close to understanding what that means.

On the Iraqi side, I think the basic misunderstanding comes from no knowledge, no experience with what Iraqi people are like, who they are, or what it means for them to be occupied. I think one sort of basic idea that Americans were sold was that Iraqis are Americans waiting to happen. And when we took Saddam Hussein away, they would throw off their Iraqi clothes and they would be these American people just like us. It’s so stupid, but that essential idea has been passed down all the way from the top and it just has no basis in reality, it’s just complete fantasy.

Did you see that in the soldiers?
IO:
This is not a war fought by some well oiled machine but by young men and women making a million small decisions every day. Americans have a very naive view of a soldier’s experience. Generally, soldiers are either portrayed as warrior hero patriots or mad zealous killers. The reality is obviously something quite different. These are of course unique human beings with complex internal worlds. And yet the war they are fighting is a confused, muddy affair where the enemy is almost never seen. Spending time there you could just feel the frustration growing. It is such a stressful environment, you start to see the contradictions emerging within some of the men. There were soldiers who were politically supportive of the war starting to waver in the face of the overwhelming sense of futility with their daily missions. On the other side, you would see soldiers with clear anti-war politics just yearning to kill someone in order to find some sense of payback.

In terms of the Iraqi experience, Falluja is a particularly interesting and sad case. Back in the States, Falluja was portrayed as some sort of “insurgent stronghold.” But Falluja was a functioning city that was viciously caught up in between insurgency and counterinsurgency. So many Iraqis we met, especially in Baghdad, obviously resented being occupied but would have stood for it if they felt some sort of improvement in their daily lives. But they didn’t. The infrastructure just wasn’t being built fast enough. In Falluja, they had one to three hours of electricity per day, none of it regularly scheduled. Most of these guys didn’t want jihad, they wanted jobs, telephone service and a sense of sovereignty.

The other side of this is, of course, that there are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that now hate Americans that never used to. The soldiers were well aware of this. They knew they were feeding the insurgency with [aggressive] tactics but felt it was the only way to maintain their security. It is a kind of vicious circle from which there seems to be no escape.

With Occupation: Dreamland, what sort of response were you hoping to evoke?
GS: I want people to know that these are real human beings, on both sides, going through terrible things and manifesting so much violence on each other. People have succeeded in making [war] this distant compartmentalized thing, and I say we should break it wide open and know what these people are doing and what they’re faced with. I want people to get a taste of it. It’s a movie, it’s supposed to open up this world for you and allow you to see interactions you don’t normally see.

IO: It’s been interesting. Both soldiers and anti-war groups have been enthusiastic about the film. Soldiers don’t want to see propaganda either, and I think they appreciate something that reflects the complexity of their experience. I think everybody is hungry for as unmediated a look as possible at how the war is carried out.

I’m very clear in my politics, but we didn’t want to make some strictly activist video. We felt that to put a heavy hand on the scale is really to undermine the political relevance of the thing. It becomes so easy to discount if it is seen as some kind of rant or propaganda. We hoped that if we could honestly reflect our experience there, that what we brought back could become a part of the debate about the war.

When I first heard of the film, you had just returned from showing it to soldiers. What kind of response did you get?
GS: Soldiers who have been there are, as you might imagine, skeptical about what they’re about to see. There was this guy at Berkeley who, within the first ten minutes of the film, was like ‘Oh man, this is going to be some political, boring documentary telling you what to think.’ Halfway through, he was viscerally jumping around in his seat and whispering excitedly to his friend, ‘That’s how it is, that’s how it is!’ Then this gigantic Marine, who replaced our guys in Falluja and had gone through all that horror and had been badly wounded, showed up at one of the screenings. He was telling some pretty horrible stories about things he had seen done to other people. He said to me, ‘Thank you, you got that right,’ and with his giant paw, patted me on the shoulder.

To learn more or find a screening near you visit www.occupationdreamland.com.

 


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