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This time, it's Fallouja in focus

Documentary filmmakers spend six weeks with the same small squad as it fights in one of Iraq's most dangerous cities.

October 14, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

The longer American troops stay in Iraq, the more the hunger grows for a sense of what it's really like there. The war on the ground has become the worst kind of international traffic accident, something we are increasingly compelled to look at as the damage levels increase. The excellent "Occupation: Dreamland" is not the first fly-on-the-wall documentary about life in the Iraqi combat zone -- the strong "Gunner Palace" was released earlier this year -- but it has several points of interest its predecessor did not.

For one thing, "Dreamland" takes place not in Baghdad but Fallouja, one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq, in the months before the pitched battle that almost leveled the place. As one of its residents menacingly says on camera, providing a window into the intensity of local feeling, "This is Fallouja. Not another city. Be careful."

Co-directors Garrett Scott and Ian Olds spent six weeks with the same small group of men, a squad of the Army's 82nd Airborne, taking hostile fire with them and sharing down time, which includes a debate about whether Cher is scary or hot. Because of that hard-earned rapport, "Dreamland" has an intimate, personal quality. Rather than showboating for the camera, the soldiers get to a deeper level, conveying a surprisingly reflective and aware sensibility.

"Dreamland," named for the former resort the squad is housed in, also illuminates the lure of the Army for capable men who were previously at a loss, individuals who were not doing anything with their lives they could take pride in as civilians. It offers a look at the kind of Americans not often put on movie screens.

When it comes to how these men function in Iraq, "Dreamland" is especially effective visually. We see the Americans, almost invisible under helmets, knee pads, body armor and a huge amount of gear, wandering across the local desert landscape like spacemen on the far side of the moon.

Dressed so differently, not speaking the language, not understanding the mores, they must look more like space aliens than fellow human beings to perplexed local residents.

Though many of these men came to Iraq hoping to do some good, they found themselves overmatched by the situation. The gap between these profoundly different cultures is all but overwhelming: bringing in a woman for interrogation, for instance, may seem like standard operating procedure for Americans, but it infuriates the very traditional Falloujans.

Also clearly not going down well are the numerous raids against civilians. The troops kick down doors, arrest people seemingly at random, inevitably inflaming local sensibilities as they simply do what soldiers have always done. Though they never hesitate to risk their lives, the soldiers are increasingly unsure that their efforts are bearing fruit.

They engage in public relations, talking via translators to individual Iraqis, not knowing how to respond when confronted by a man who says that Americans promise a lot, "but all we see is guns." Mostly they are sad and pessimistic, not seeing the situation as being fixable any time soon.

One of "Occupation: Dreamland's" most telling moments is one of its smallest. A soldier stops to talk to a lone Iraqi. He fingers the man's garment and asks what it's called. A subtitle tells us what the soldier does not know: the man has answered "leather" in Arabic. The soldier, trying to be a good guy, replies, "In English we call it a jacket." Even in the most unimportant matters, misunderstandings seem fated to be the order of the day.

*

'Occupation: Dreamland'

MPAA rating: Not rated

Times guidelines: strong language

By Rumor Releasing. Directors Garrett Scott, Ian Olds. Producers Scott, Selina Lewis Davidson.

Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes.

In limited release.

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