Plenty of documentary filmmakers have captured the follies of the Iraq war. But none have had quite the same background and access as Charles Ferguson. An MIT-trained political scientist, Brookings Institution senior fellow and successful software entrepreneur, Ferguson offers up something rarer than common dissent. His recently released and well-reviewed documentary chronicles the Bush Administration’s policy decisions following the fall of Baghdad in 2003.
Bucking current conventional wisdom that considers the occupation doomed to fail from the get-go, No End in Sight contends that with better planning, the whole fiasco might have gone smoothly. Was a sectarian civil war truly inevitable? According to the film’s bemused collection of talking heads–including Assassins’ Gate author George Packer, Ambassador Barbara Bodine and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage–the “post-war” reconstruction of Iraq was bungled every step of the way by an arrogant, shortsighted network of professional incompetents. From the film’s perspective, were it not for initially insufficient troop levels, unchecked looting in Baghdad, de-Ba’athification and the disbanding of the Iraqi military, we theoretically could have seen a stable Iraq in 2007.
Ferguson will let others debate whether or not the invasion was morally justified–this film’s subject is institutional mismanagement, plain and simple. Though it eschews the partisan passion of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, No End In Sight dissects the lies and blunders of Donald Rumsfeld and L. Paul Bremer, among others, with a systematic precision that proves amply damning. Chalk it up to Ferguson’s policy-wonk pedigree. He certainly looks more like an accountant than an auteur, and he subjects the architects of this disaster to a well-warranted audit. On the eve of his film’s July 27 release in New York City–preceding a national rollout by Magnolia Pictures–Ferguson sat down with Akiva Gottlieb to discuss his crucial investigation of an unnecessary catastrophe.
How does an information technology expert become a filmmaker?
With some difficulty…But I’ve been obsessed with film since I was a kid. For a long time I’ve been going to film festivals and got to know a number of people in the film world, and have been interested in making films for a long time. So when I decided to do this, I basically started calling up all my friends, and they gave me a lot of guidance and connected me with a lot of people. It turned out to be a very doable thing.
But No End In Sightwas the idea that actually made you get out there and make it happen. Was there some kind of spark that made you feel: This particular film needs to be made, and I’m the person to do it?
Well, the fact that it wasn’t being made. I started looking at the situation in Iraq in, well, just a normal, interested citizen kind of way–I had been interested in it for a long time–but in early 2004 I started getting more seriously interested. Sometime in the first half in 2004, I had dinner with George Packer, who’s an old friend of mine, and George had just come back from his second or third trip to Iraq, and he made it extremely clear that the situation there was dramatically different and dramatically worse than was being generally portrayed…certainly by the Administration and most of the media. And he was just starting to write his book.
At that time, no good books on the subject had yet been written. Actually, David Phillips’ Losing Iraq was probably the first. So I asked George whether anybody was making a film on the subject, and I raised the possibility of my making a film on the subject. Most people I talked to advised me not to do it. They said, you know, “We don’t know of anything going on now, but it’s such a large and obviously important subject that a million people are gonna be making this kind of film.”
Or so one would think.
Exactly. So I waited a year. And nobody was making this film, so I decided to make it.
When did you first go to Iraq? And did you already know you’d be making No End In Sight?
Oh, sure. I went to Iraq in March-April 2006, relatively late in the process. At that point, I had already done most of the interviews that constitute the film.
Did you go to Iraq mainly to do interviews, or was it about broadening your perspective? Because one of the main assertions in this film is that many of the people who orchestrated this war hadn’t been to Iraq themselves.
Yeah, absolutely. It was both.
As comprehensive as your film seems, there’s a great deal of information that doesn’t fit into a two-hour running time. The prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib never comes up. You never really deal with the culpability of the American media. Were you ever tempted to make a longer film, like Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary? And would you ever consider revisiting this subject?
As to the second question, I’m not sure. But we already have revisited the subject, in a certain sense. We are preparing the material for the DVD. And on the DVD there will be an additional several hours of material. We have around 3,000 pages of interview transcripts, and we’re going the full text–all of it–up on the Web. And you’re quite correct. There’s an awful lot of interesting material there. There are many subjects we just couldn’t fit into an 100 minute film.
Was there a consciousness of wanting to pitch this film to a wide audience? Because it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the American public isn’t interested in hearing about Iraq anymore.
Well, I certainly wanted to make the film widely accessible in a number of senses, including in regard to people’s political dispositions. I didn’t want it to be a film that only people who were always against the war would want to watch. I wanted it to be interesting to people who had earlier been favorable towards the war, for example. People who are Republicans. People who supported President Bush. And, in part for that reason, the film is not about whether the decision to use military force to remove Saddam was a justified decision or not, was a wise decision or not. It’s about what actually happened.
You were initially optimistic about American intervention in Iraq. Was there a specific moment when your faith was shaken?
Well, there were many specific moments. I was getting nervous about the way this was actually going to be done even before the war started. I looked at the Bush Administration’s conduct towards the international community and the United Nations. There was just an arrogance there. Then, news and information started to come out, and certainly by late 2003 it was already apparent to many of us that this had a lot of problems.
But it was still quite a shock to hear what George Packer had to say about just how badly things had been mismanaged. And then I received yet another series of shocks when I started doing the interviewing and research myself for the film.
On an extremely regular basis, almost daily, I would learn things that were just jaw-droppingly, stunningly amazing. When I remember the time I first learned that the organization initially in charge of occupied Iraq, ORHA [Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance]–when it entered Iraq in a convoy of unarmored SUVs in April 2003, they didn’t have Internet access or e-mail, and most of them didn’t have telephones. That situation lasted for weeks, in some cases for months. That’s just insane. It doesn’t matter what your political beliefs are. It’s just crazy. And people would tell me things like that routinely.
Why do you think someone like Walter Slocombe [of the Coalition Provisional Authority] agreed to speak with you when he clearly didn’t have answers to the questions that matter?
I’ll never understand that. Maybe he feels some element of remorse. I can’t believe that he totally, truly believed what he was saying, because in a number of instances he just–forgive me for being indelicate–he just lied. I don’t think that he’s delusional. I think that he understood that he was not telling the truth. So why did he do it? I don’t know.
How did you pitch interviews to people like Bremer, Cheney, Rumsfeld–all those who declined?
I was very straightforward. I told them: “I’m making a serious film about this subject, and I think I can demonstrate that I’m a serious guy. Here’s a list of people we’ve spoken to, and we’d like to speak with you.”
Occasionally it worked. Most of the time it didn’t. I tried very hard. I approached Bremer directly. I approached him through his publicist. I got his personal e-mail address. I approached him through mutual friends. He initially said yes, and then he backed out.
Were most of those who declined simply evasive, or straightforward about their unwillingness to participate?
Bremer was very slippery. First he said yes, and then he stopped returning our phone calls. Other people just said no. Rumsfeld just said no. Wolfowitz just said no.
Your perception when making this film was, quite obviously, that there is no end in sight. Has that perception shifted at all since you completed the film?
Unfortunately not. I think we dug ourselves and the Iraqis into a hole that will take a generation to fix.
Do any of the presidential candidates impress you at all with their plans for troop withdrawal?
Not really, because I don’t think anybody has an impressive plan. I don’t think that it’s politically palatable–not now, and maybe not ever–to tell the American people that at this point there are probably going to be 50,000 to 75,000 American troops in Iraq for ten, twenty, thirty years, and the place is going to be a mess for a long time. There’s a significant risk of an enormous bloodbath and a regional war, and all the options are pretty bad. For both practical and political reasons, it’s going to be necessary to draw down the American presence substantially. It’s going to be forced by domestic political pressure, and it’s probably a good thing. But if the US were to withdraw completely from Iraq, the likelihood of a Rwanda-scale bloodbath is very high. And the likelihood of a regionalization of the war is also very high.
Is there proof in your mind that political documentaries can actually make a difference? Fahrenheit 9/11 didn’t keep Bush out of office, and When the Levees Broke hasn’t elicited any kind of government response. What is your best-case-scenario hope for No End In Sight?
Well, there have been times when documentaries have made a difference. I think that there’s an opportunity for that to occur in this case. And I’m very encouraged by the early evidence that we have. The trailer for the film was posted on YouTube three weeks ago. In the first two weeks that it was posted there, 20,000 people watched it. In the third week–this past week–170,000 people watched it. Something like 60,000 yesterday alone.
That suggests that people are interested. I think there’s some possibility that the film will be widely seen and will have an effect on political debate, and perhaps the course of the presidential campaign.