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War, as seen through these soldiers' eyes

`The War Tapes' is one in a growing genre of Iraq documentaries. Now, the challenge is finding an audience.

October 11, 2006|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

"The War Tapes," a new documentary shot primarily by National Guardsmen in Fallouja with cameras affixed to their gun turrets and to the dashboards of their Humvees, opens with the staccato footage of a gun battle and the terrifying calls of "Sgt. Smith's down! Sgt. Smith's down!"

It's a frightening but familiar scene from a war that is now -- thanks to portable technology and the infinite breadth of the Internet -- considered the most scrutinized in history. Military censorship is no match for a soldier with a hand-held camera and a website.

"War Tapes" opens Friday, joining four other Iraq war documentaries released this fall and adding to the burgeoning array of works in this genre. Among these are Zeitgeist Films' "My Country, My Country"; Focus Feature's "The Ground Truth"; director Robert Greenwald's "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers" and the Sundance Film Festival award winner "Iraq in Fragments," a Typecast Releasing/HBO Documentary Films picture. Each demonstrates that filmmakers, perhaps in the spirit of competition, are doggedly following the ever-changing story in Iraq and finding creative ways to capture it. The issue now is finding the audience.

"In previous wars, you had some time for things to filter through," said Michael Tucker, co-director of the 2005 Palm Pictures release "Gunner Palace," and the upcoming Netflix release "The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair." "Now everyone's so saturated with images, they don't know how to weigh them anymore....What does it mean? Is there progress? Is there not progress? Everything starts to look the same."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 18, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 83 words Type of Material: Correction
'The War Tapes': An Oct. 11 Calendar section article about the new Iraq war documentary "The War Tapes," which follows three National Guardsmen, said the Army required that the participating soldiers volunteer for the project. It was the National Guard that made that stipulation. The article also said the Army censored grisly footage of three dead insurgents but allowed those images to appear as photos. It was the National Guard that censored the footage, and the photos were used against the Guard's wishes.

While the glut of bleak war footage isn't an easy sell to already desensitized audiences, these films offer more intimate views of war that give more contexts to the chaos. "War Tapes" and "The Ground Truth" tell the wrenching stories of Iraq war veterans. Both "Iraq in Fragments" and "My Country, My Country" reveal the Iraqi perspective under U.S. occupation. "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers" shows the human cost of using corporations in Iraq to do the job of government.

"War Tapes" came about after director Deborah Scranton declined an invitation to embed with the New Hampshire National Guardsmen, instead negotiating a deal to give cameras to soldiers headed to Fallouja in March 2004. The Army's main caveat was that the soldiers had to volunteer. Ten of the 180 soldiers in the Charlie Company, 3rd of the 172nd Infantry (Mountain) Regiment agreed. Just three ended up in the film.

"As these guys went to get on the plane," said Scranton in a phone call from her home in Goshen, N.H., "one of them leaned into me and said, 'Please don't let us die anonymous.' "

The film follows Sgt. Steve Pink, a part-time carpenter, now 27; Sgt. Zack Bazzi, a Lebanese American psychology student, also 27; and Spc. Michael Moriarity, a forklift operator, now 36. They expected a yearlong assignment escorting Halliburton supply trucks and patrolling neighborhoods. Instead, they arrived just before the Fallouja insurgents strung up the charred bodies of contractors. Suddenly, their jobs became a game of Russian roulette. "If I play the odds," said Pink in the film, "one of us will die before the tour is over."

Scranton deliberately avoided going to Iraq, she said, to prevent her own perspective on the war from infiltrating the film. Instead, during the course of the year, she earned the trust of the soldiers by vigilantly monitoring her AOL/Instant Messenger account for the ping of news from Camp Anaconda in the Sunni Triangle.

"The closer I got with her, the more I trusted her, the more I knew her," said Bazzi in a phone call from Portsmouth, N.H. "Every now and then, she would say, 'Put the camera on your face. Don't be shy.' "

Together with two other soldiers who don't appear in the film, Bazzi, Pink and Moriarity shot 800 hours of footage of the combat, carnage and terror of war, right along with the day-to-day tedium, cynicism and longing that marked the assignment. In the film, they weep over an Iraqi killed by their convoy; numbly recount the viscera left over after a car bomb, even vow to recycle and lead a greener life if it would end the battle for oil. The Army censored only one scene -- grisly footage of three dead insurgents -- allowing those images to appear as photos.

All this was enough to persuade "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara" executive producer Robert May and "Hoop Dreams" creator Steve James to join the project in 2005. After a year of editing, including 200 more hours of footage shot of the soldiers' families at home, the movie premiered last spring at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the award for best documentary feature.

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