Although Occupation: Dreamland was filmed entirely in Falluja, only two of its three main settings are Iraqi. Those places are the shadowless streets, their bleached yellow walls huddling together on a dusty plain, seen in long shot during daylight hours; and the murky interiors of houses, shot after sundown with a nightscope to yield shaky, close-up, glowing-green views. The third principal setting, by contrast, might as well be a lamp-lit American dormitory, cluttered with rumpled beds and wallpapered with pinup photos. This is the barracks of the 82nd Airborne’s Alpha Company, 1/505.
Here the soldiers feel sufficiently at home to talk about their discomfort–their contempt, despair and rage–at stepping into foreign spaces. “I was never out of the country before, except for booze runs to fuckin’ Mexico,” marvels Pfc. Thomas Turner, expressing a commonly held sense of disbelief. Like many of his buddies, he says he never imagined that enlistment in the Army would result in his being sent to someplace strange and dangerous. You have no cause to doubt that his frayed ingenuousness is real, or that Sgt. Eric Forbes is voicing an equally common response to this posting when he says of Falluja, “I hate these people.”
Forbes makes that comment soon after a fellow soldier has died in a roadside bombing, so you may take the remark as no more than situational. Forbes seems to have no existential loathing for Iraqis–in fact, he describes them as caught haplessly in the way, as the United States lunges for oil–but whatever hostility he’s sparked in Falluja, he will return it, and with twice the firepower. At their most gung-ho, soldiers like Forbes think of combat as a release from the tension of policing the Iraqis. “I like bein’ shot at. It makes it interesting,” claims Staff Sgt. Ryan Mish, who says that sometimes “I just want to light everybody up.” On the more mature end of the scale, the soldiers regard the occupation as an end in itself, self-perpetuating and self-enclosed. “What are we securing here?” asks Capt. Terence Caliguire at a staff briefing. “We’re securing essentially ourselves. So what are we protecting? I don’t know.”
Shot in January and February 2004 by Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, this admirably direct and spare documentary is the second feature released this year to record the lives of American soldiers in Iraq. It follows Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, which was shot in Baghdad at almost the same time (autumn 2003-winter 2004), and which focused on soldiers in the 2/3 Field Artillery. At the risk of sounding heartless, I will describe Gunner Palace as the more entertaining of the films. It dwells on the surrealism of the Field Artillery’s having billeted itself in a bombed-out pleasure palace, and it makes the most of the soldiers’ desire to play to the camera. Freestyle rappers, poets and platoon flakes are much in evidence. Also, while it presents a thoroughly unsentimental view of the war, Gunner Palace gives a varied account of the occupiers. You sometimes see them trying hard to help Iraqis; you witness moments of generosity and even tenderness.
Occupation: Dreamland is a drier experience, and a more somber one. Its lightest scene records how one GI tries good-heartedly to converse in phrase-book Arabic, despite getting stuck at “Salaam aleikum.” In a more touching sequence, Spc. Patrick Napoli uses an Army manual to drill his squad in sign language. The soldiers work hard at it, and Napoli expresses pride in momentarily being a leader. But he adds, “I’m in Iraq. It’s a little late for a sign language class.”